Should Honolulu’s Recycling Program Go Up in Flames?

Honolulu should be recycling even less than it does now.


In 2013, O‘ahu recycled 171,000 tons of ferrous metal, and 14,000 tons of nonferrous metal (including aluminum cans). Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



If you look at the amount of trash the City and County of Honolulu recycles, it seems we could do a lot better: only 38.6 percent in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. We lag way behind San Francisco, which claims a recycling rate of 80 percent, Los Angeles is at 76 percent, San Diego at 65 percent and Seattle at 60 percent. Even gritty Chicago recycles 58 percent of its trash. Sounds like we’ve got some catching up to do, right?


But wait, more local experts, including the director of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services, are starting to argue the opposite: that Honolulu should be recycling even less than it does now.


What? Recycling everything you can possibly recycle is good … isn’t it? We dived into Honolulu’s municipal solid-waste disposal system to find out how technology is changing the way we think about the environmental impact—and the economics—of trash.



The clawwwww! This trash, piled up at H-POWER, is destined to be burned and converted to electricity. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



The Status Quo


Here’s our current residential trash system, in a nutshell. If you live in a house on O‘ahu, you most likely are among the 160,000 households who put your gray, green and blue bins out by the curb. (The vast majority of high-rises pay for private pickup, and some residents in older neighborhoods—about 20,000—still have crews tossing trash into the backs of trucks by hand.)


The green bin, for green waste—yard trimmings, grass clippings and Christmas trees—has a local story. About 100,000 tons a year of green waste gets trucked to Hawaiian Earth Products, in the shadow of the Wai‘anae Mountains. There, it becomes a dark, rich compost that contrasts vividly with the region’s famous red dirt. Three or four months later, the compost re-enters the market sold by the bag or truck bed, where it contributes to the healthy growth of next month’s garden.


The blue bin is the world traveler. Recyclables—including metal cans, glass and plastic bottles, corrugated cardboard and office paper—head first to RRR Recycling Services, holder of the city’s recycling contract, where they are laboriously sorted (there’s a guy whose job it is to empty out those plastic bottles you left half-full, people, so please empty them yourself!) and then baled or dropped into a shipping container for reprocessing. Since we have no recycling facilities in-state, the contents of your blue bin have to cross an ocean to get remade. Glass gets shipped to private companies in California, says RRR’s owner, Dominic Henriques. Aluminum goes to Alabama; lower-value recyclables, such as plastic, cardboard and paper, take the slow boat to China.


The gray bin gets all the leftovers: the nonhazardous, nonbulky waste that can’t be processed with the green or blue bins, including caps from bottles, cereal boxes, your kid’s headless doll, broken wire hangers, empty ballpoint pens. If you’ve dismissed that gray bin as the boring, conventional, wasteful kind of garbage, it might be time to take another look. What happens to waste in our gray bins tells us a big part of why we lag behind other American cities in recycling, why we could lag still further … and why that could be a good thing, both for the environment and for the city’s coffers, which helps us taxpayers.


In most places in the land-rich Other 49, that gray bin would go straight to a landfill. On O‘ahu, though, it goes to H-POWER, the county’s waste-to-energy plant in Kapolei, which has been operated by Covanta since 1990. H-POWER is a power plant that runs on trash; it burns the contents of the gray bin, heating steam to power a turbine that produces about 8 percent of O‘ahu’s electricity. At the same time, it reduces the volume of trash sent to a landfill by about 90 percent (the ash that’s left over after burning still goes to the landfill). In 2013, H-POWER incinerated 498,000 tons of trash, or 40.3 percent of our total municipal solid waste. Covanta’s Ahmad Sadri estimates that, for every ton of trash burned, a barrel of oil, plus the fossil fuel used to ship it here, is saved. In 2013, that would have been 498,000 barrels of oil we avoided shipping here.


“Trash is treasure,” says Panos Prevedouros, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UH Mānoa and a former mayoral candidate. “Not only do you make energy, you remove something that is bad.” Prevedouros adds that a waste-to-energy plant can make “serious money” charging tipping fees, selling its electricity to the utility and harvesting the valuable metals for what he calls “a win-win-win” situation: The plant helps the state meet its renewable energy goals, it keeps trash out of landfills and Covanta has revenue streams that gross about $125 million per year. Not too shabby for stuff we all throw away.


The plant can burn just about anything (except glass and metals), but there are conflicting regulations that govern what is currently being burned. A key restriction is that no more than 10 percent of all H-POWER materials processed can be green waste.



Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



Finding Utopia


It turns out that when it comes to trash, O‘ahu has more in common with Europe and parts of Asia than we do with the rest of the United States. Inside H-POWER, there’s a mountain of trash the height of a seven-story building, seamed with rusty bicycles and tattered couches. An employee controls a car-size version of a vending-machine claw, to grab a wad of trash that feeds the incinerator. It’s mesmerizing.


An almost identical scene is underway in municipalities across the globe, particularly those that, like O‘ahu, have relatively dense populations, electricity costs that are much higher than on the U.S. mainland and few new landfill options. Northern Europe, in particular, is full of waste-to-energy plants: Oslo, Norway’s capital, is so enthusiastic about burning rubbish to make electricity that it imports trash from nearby nations. Northern Europe is so efficient at trash disposal that NPR recently called it a “garbage utopia.”


Developed and densely packed countries in East Asia are getting in on the act, too. According to Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan all send more than 40 percent of their trash to waste-to-energy plants. The Republic of Korea is building waste-to-energy capacity so fast that it won the global Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council Award for 2014. Honolulu City Council chair Ernie Martin describes visiting Korea and being surprised that they were “actually, now, mining their landfill to use as a fuel source.”


By contrast, there have been few, if any, new waste-to-energy plants built in the United States since 1996, and the number of plants in operation has actually declined by about 20 percent in the past 15 years. The United States puts more than 60 percent of the trash it produces into a landfill, which is the Environmental Protection Agency’s least-preferred method of trash disposal: It takes up space and gives off methane.


Why the difference? A combination of factors. For one thing, the U.S. has plenty of landfill options. Even a crowded megalopolis like New York City can and does truck its trash across several state lines to landfills in Ohio. Then there’s the low cost of electricity across most of the U.S., which makes a waste-to-energy plant a less profitable or attractive proposition.


And there is political will. Many U.S. environmental groups, notably the  influential Sierra Club, have strict and long-standing policies opposing the incineration of municipal waste, citing concerns that waste-to-energy plants pollute the air and compete with recycling programs.


“For them, it’s an absolute,” says Prevedouros. The Sierra Club’s stance against burning municipal waste was conceived in the 1980s and 1990s, when emissions of many pollutants from waste-to-energy plants were 50 to 100 times what they are today; that NPR segment said today’s waste-to-energy plants “barely pollute. The amount of hazardous chemicals that come out of these things is equivalent to a fireplace.” Asked to confirm that H-POWER doesn’t appreciably affect air quality, even at the immediate site, Manny Lanuevo, the city’s refuse chief, responded, “That’s true.”


Source: Columbia University EEC


City Department of Environmental Services director Lori Kahikina in the H-POWER control room. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



Reduce, Reuse… Incinerate?


Lori Kahikina, director of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services (which oversees our trash disposal), admits she wishes Honolulu was recycling even less than it does. “I have to be truthful,” says Kahikina.


“I do have a hard time with recycling. It had its purpose before H-POWER came along, because all those recyclables were going into the landfill. It made sense to get as much as you could out of the landfill. But now, economically, it doesn’t make sense for Hawai‘i.” – Lori Kahikina


She adds that it doesn’t make environmental sense, either: “There’s no process plant here. We’re shipping it off-island. You’re burning fossil fuel. Environmentally it’s not feasible, if you look at it just from Hawai‘i’s point of view.” (She adds quickly that, from a global standpoint, it’s good to make things out of other things.)


It’s an idea that’s hard for many to wrap their heads around in 2015. The importance of recycling has been drilled into us for decades, with environmental organizations leading the charge in the U.S., and the campaign has been effective: We feel virtuous when we put something into the blue bin, and regretful when we put something into the gray bin. The EPA built that hierarchy into its policy, ranking recycling and composting second only in preference to not producing the trash in the first place; waste-to-energy comes third in that hierarchy. That value system also shows up in the City and County of Honolulu, where recycling and composting are mandatory for government and large businesses. The city’s Department of Environmental Services website features pages and pages on recycling, including links to recycling songs for schoolchildren to sing.


But a number of factors have made recycling a much less fiscally realistic or environmentally friendly option than it is on the continental U.S.—or even than it used to be in Hawai‘i. Garbage collection and disposal, which Mayor Kirk Caldwell says is “one of the city’s biggest expenses,” has just gotten even more expensive. The recycling industry has become globalized and with globalization comes long travel distances and vulnerability to politics and price fluctuations on the other side of the world.


Until two years ago, the city was “actually making a profit” on recycling, says Kahikina, despite shipping fees to China that RRR Recycling’s Henriques says can be many times the cost of a similar load on an L.A.-China route. But, two years ago, China, which by some estimates processes about two-thirds of America’s recycling, announced “Operation Green Fence” and got picky about what recyclables, and what levels of contamination, it would accept.


That, and new state Health Department regulations, drove the price of processing recycling sky-high, even as the prices RRR was able to fetch for its lower-value recyclables tumbled. “Cardboard is at a very low point right now,” says Henriques. “So is newspaper. It’s super low, and has been kind of hanging there all year.” Plastic is “OK,” says Henriques, but pundits surmise that an ever-richer China, now producing enough of its own trash, will not raise its offers any time soon. Kahikina estimates that the city’s once-profitable recycling program is now costing the city more than a million dollars per year.


Add that to the carbon footprint of shipping recyclables overseas, and the reasons not to recycle certain materials mount. “Our biggest problem is that our economy is so small it doesn’t justify an aluminum plant or a plastics plant,” says Prevedouros. “Then, essentially, we have to burn fossil fuel to return (recyclables) to California or somewhere else to make something useful.”


It’s not only engineers like Prevedouros and Kahikina who say that this is an issue worth examining. We asked Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the renewable-energy-focused environmental advocacy group Blue Planet Foundation, whether it made environmental sense to recycle in Hawai‘i. His answer: “That’s a great question. There is clearly energy input in moving the stuff across the ocean.” It would be different, says Mikulina, if the ships were coming to Hawai‘i anyway and could be filled on the return journey for lower rates (what the industry calls back-haul). But “if you’re spending just as much energy shipping the stuff there and processing it, then it doesn’t make sense.” Henriques said RRR doesn’t get back-haul rates.


There’s another million-dollar incentive that’s coming from H-POWER itself: since H-POWER expanded its capacity significantly in 2012, adding a third boiler, the city has also been paying Covanta for the annual incineration of a minimum of 800,000 tons of trash, even though currently it only produces 680,000 tons. It’s called a “put or pay” agreement, and was based on projected capacity before the economy crashed in 2008, reducing trash production. With the recent opening of H-POWER’s $10-million sludge injection facility, which adds sewage waste to the heap, that number is set to climb to about 720,000 tons, but the shortfall still leaves the county 80,000 tons, and nearly a million dollars, short.


One might expect Anthony Aalto, the chair of the Sierra Club’s O‘ahu Group, to espouse a firm, even strident, stand against diverting recyclables to H-POWER. Instead, he gives a nuanced take that he says is his own personal feeling rather than the Sierra Club’s official line. Aalto spoke about making sometimes counterintuitive choices in a complex, real-world environment where the stakes are high and people are all feeling their way forward.


Aalto recalled his time as a member of the city’s sustainable-building task force: “We were in the ironic position of having to recommend that the city stop the practice of recycling glass in asphalt,” Aalto says, because existing regulations meant that the process created much more waste than it saved. “That’s what happens sometimes, as you try to move ahead and become more progressive. We learn things along the way.”


What did that mean for recyclables and H-POWER? “When you ask a question about whether it’s actually greener to (send trash to H-POWER) than to ship our recyclables to the Mainland or to Asia—I haven’t seen the statistics, but if it’s true that it’s causing us to consume more energy, then that might be something we would have to look at,” Aalto says.


Waste-to-energy plants weren’t always a better alternative. Until the EPA introduced its industry pollution (MACT) standards in 1990, emissions for the plants were high, and in the early-adopter United States, it meant that they got a bad reputation that has lingered. Landfills, which emit methane as the trash decomposes, have improved, too: At Waimānalo Gulch, the methane emitted is captured and burned off. The process does produce some carbon dioxide, but methane is 18 times worse, from a global warming standpoint.


Regulations, right now, also require the city and large businesses to recycle. So, a change in recycling practices would mean a change in regulations.


“I think the public is slowly starting to understand,” says Kahikina. “I was at a meeting in Waikīkī, and one of the hotel owners approached me and said, ‘Why are we recycling? Doesn’t it cost money? Aren’t we using fossil fuel to ship it? Why aren’t we just burning it all?’ And I said, ‘Are you trying to get me shot? You’re sounding like me!’ People are realizing that H-POWER is a feasible option.”



What Goes Where —The New Wisdom


We asked local experts what they recommended in terms of sorting trash. What gets recycled, and what should go straight into the trash?


Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino





Aluminum is everybody’s no-brainer. “Aluminum, no doubt, recycle,” says Mikulina, citing the high environmental and financial cost of extracting new aluminum. Prevedouros agrees, adding that aluminum crushes easily into shippable blocks, is “infinitely recyclable” (meaning that you can create high-quality products out of it multiple times) and commands a high price.




If you want. H-POWER can’t turn glass into electricity. Instead of burning, says Chris Baker, Covanta’s CFO, “glass melts in the boiler, and causes problems with the combustion process.” Technology exists to make use of the glass locally, as road base, but real-world complexities currently make that approach impractical. It’s a reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all policy for recyclables when Jeff Mikulina of Blue Planet Foundation tells me, only half joking, “I’m a tree-hugger through and through, and I wouldn’t lose sleep if you dumped (the glass) in the ocean. It’s sand in another form.”




“The best destination for plastic would be the waste-to-energy (plant). Clearly,” says Prevedouros. Or, as Mikulina suggests, “don’t make it in the first place.” By weight, plastic makes up only a small percentage of municipal trash, but it presents an outsize environmental headache, getting into the water system and polluting the oceans. The reasons we love plastic, its longevity and strength, are also the reasons we hate it: Most plastics do not biodegrade. The Sierra Club’s Anthony Aalto points out that scientist David Suzuki has estimated that each human body in the industrialized world contains about a pound of plastic, ingested in water and food.


Paper and Cardboard


Paper and cardboard are heavy and hard to compact further for efficient shipping to recycling plants; they burn beautifully, and are depressed in price. “Paper, oh, my God, it’s really perverse to recycle. We’re losing the opportunity to make energy, and we’re wasting more fossil fuel to ship it somewhere else. If you have paper, put it in the gray bin,” says Prevedouros.


Green Waste

Jury’s Out

“Why are you composting it? It’s ready to burn,” says Prevedouros. The 100,000 tons of green waste O‘ahu produces each year are free biomass, just like those biomass-to-energy plants on Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i Island. Kahikina is more circumspect, saying that, in purely economic terms, it makes sense to burn O‘ahu’s green waste, but she adds that “We need to focus not only on the economic aspect, but also on the social and environmental aspect as well.” The green-waste loop is already local, creating jobs and keeping money in-state. As good a fuel as it is, it may make sense to leave green waste as is.



Burn Those Books!


Doing the right thing can sometimes get complicated. You know those Think Yellow Go Green phone-book recycling campaigns, where you can drop off your phone book at select locations to be recycled? They’re going straight to H-POWER. “Phone books are made of low-grade papers, and they keep jamming the sort line at the Materials Recovery Facility,” says Lori Kahikina, director of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services. “We’re telling (people) to throw the phone books in the gray cart, and the phone book companies are telling them to throw them in the blue cart.” Phone book: gray bin



What about the new landfill?


Nothing brings out a vocal chorus of “Not in my backyard” like the prospect of a new landfill moving in. But who can blame people, really? Everybody makes trash, nobody wants other peoples’. Yet it all has to go somewhere. And when Waimānalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill, our current site on the Wai‘anae coast, fills up, it will have to go somewhere else. Right?


Well, maybe not. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell says H-POWER’s recently expanded capacity and other technological developments in the pipeline mean that O‘ahu will likely never need another landfill. “Rather than opening a new landfill, with all of the environmental and neighborhood impact that would create, our goal is to end the need for a daily landfill on O‘ahu using technology. We are already much of the way there,” says Caldwell.


As it stands, increased burning of trash and the inclusion of new waste streams at H-POWER, which reduces trash volume by 90 percent, has extended Waimānalo Gulch’s lifespan another 25 to 40 years. O‘ahu already diverts around 80 percent of its municipal solid waste from the landfill. Keeping out that last 20 percent will come, in part, says Caldwell, from adding capabilities to H-POWER, of which the city’s new sludge intake system, which burns sewage sludge that formerly went into the landfill, is the first.



Honolulu Chucks the Plastic Bag


The single-use plastic grocery bag ban that went into effect for O‘ahu on July 1 turns out to be more about litter—the trash that escapes the waste disposal system—than it is about reducing the volume of trash. “They’re just the hardest things to control,” says Joseph Whelan, general manager of O‘ahu’s main landfill at Waimānalo Gulch on the Leeward Coast, where the bags are an operational headache on windy days. “The volume is so great, compared to the weight, that any little bit of wind picks them up.”


The world goes through an estimated 1 trillion single-use plastic bags every year, 1 billion of those in the United States. They float in the wind but come to rest on open water, clogging up waterways, drainage systems (Bangladesh rolled out the first national plastic bag ban in 2002, when the bags were found to have contributed to devastating floods) and the ocean. They’re also exceptionally durable, so the problem only builds up over time.


“Most plastics are not biodegradable,” says Anthony Aalto, O‘ahu Group chair of the Sierra Club. “The amount of plastic now being found in birds, in fish, is just out of control.”


Ernie Martin, Chair of the Honolulu City Council, introduced the legislation and helped push it through. “We are surrounded by ocean,” says Martin. “It’s a precious commodity within our state. We’re the biggest county (in Hawai‘i), of almost a million people. A ban just made sense.”





Watch This Trashy Movie


For anyone interested in learning more about Hawai‘i’s waste cycle, the Courtyard Cinema series is screening the documentary movie Just Eat It on July 9 at Ward Villages’ IBM Building. Billed as “a food waste story,” Just Eat It explores the ways in which food is thrown away—and sometimes rescued. Stick around after the movie for a salon-style talk story with key experts and scholars. Tickets are free, but must be purchased ahead of time; visit for more information.