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ANALYSIS: Rubbish Shortage Shows Flaw in Incineration Plan

September 12, 2014, 12:12 PM HST
* Updated September 12, 12:18 PM
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This article is part of a continuing series addressing issues related to the county’s proposed waste-to-energy incinerator. Previous articles are here (6 Myths About Waste Incineration Plan) and here (Ban on Trucking Rubbish to West Hawaii is a Myth).

Recent news from Oahu that its HPOWER incinerator was running short of rubbish prompted a Hawaii County official to say that wouldn’t happen to the incinerator the administration wants to build here.

Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd told a newspaper reporter that the Hilo project would be “much smaller” than HPOWER; in fact, it would be about one-tenth the size. But it wasn’t mentioned that Oahu has 10 times more rubbish than the Big Island. In a comparison of scale, HPOWER and the proposed Hilo incinerator are about the same size. It isn’t as if the Big Island has a surplus of rubbish to go around.

The administration has said it would feed the incinerator without reducing recycling, but that doesn’t mean large amounts of recyclable materials won’t be going into the incinerator to meet the demand for burnable material. More than 50% of the existing waste stream consists of recyclable paper (33%) and organic waste (22%), according to the 2009 Integrated Resources and Solid Waste Management Plan.

This is a critical point. Removing any significant portion of those recyclables in the waste stream would make it more difficult for the county to operate an incinerator efficiently. Removing more than 40% of the recyclables wouldn’t leave enough burnable material on the island to meet the administration’s minimum guarantee at the proposed incinerator.

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Commercial haulers could also affect the county’s ability to generate enough rubbish to fuel an incinerator demanding 300 tons per day. Kona-based hauler Pacific Waste already has plans to build its own incinerator in West Hawaii that could take a significant chunk out of the island’s waste stream, again jeopardizing the county’s ability to meet its incinerator guarantee. The administration’s plan does not address this kind of contingency.

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Building an expensive incinerator to solve the island’s rubbish problem might be a good idea, but only if the county didn’t already have available, safe and far less expensive alternatives. Instead of building an incinerator, the county could save millions of dollars a year by recycling all that it can in the waste stream and putting what’s left in the Puuanahulu landfill, which has the capacity to continue taking all of the Big Island’s non-recyclable wastes for at least the next 30 years.

Hunter Bishop is a former deputy director of the Department of Environmental Management and former executive assistant to Mayor Billy Kenoi.

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