Why Hawai‘i County no Longer Recycles Paper, Plastic

October 15, 2019, 1:59 PM HST (Updated October 15, 2019, 1:59 PM)
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Department of Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski on Tuesday afternoon provided a briefing to the Hawai‘i County Council on changes to the county’s recycling policy, which have caused unrest about the future of the local environment islandwide.

Commonly recycled items such as plastic bottles or plastic containers of any kind, newspaper, office paper, cereal boxes and all other non-corrugated cardboard will no longer be accepted at transfer stations anywhere on Hawai‘i Island as of Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019.

The decision comes on the heels of what the county has described as “significant decreases in global recycling markets,” namely in China and other Southeast Asian countries where Hawai‘i’s recyclable waste has been most commonly sold.

Kucharski said in an interview Tuesday before his presentation to the Council that the two primary factors driving markets down are lower oil prices and the high cost of manpower incurred to inspect and clean recyclable feedstocks.

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Petroleum is a primary component in plastic production, meaning lower oil prices equate to less expensive plastic manufacturing and a decreased demand for recycled materials.

China, formerly a top buyer in the market, announced in 2017 plans to up its contamination standards on recyclables to 1%. Industry experts like Jerry Powell, executive editor at Resource Recycling Inc., said those standards, which went into effect in January 2018, are essentially impossible to meet.

An example of contamination would be a cigarette butt in a plastic water bottle, for instance.

But Kucharski said the problem of what do about recyclables in Hawai‘i is more systemic and long-standing than negative economic developments over just the past two years. The state and county’s policies, he said, have more or less equated to an “out of sight, out of mind” strategy.

“I have a problem justifying shipping waste products 3,000 miles in either direction with the hope that they’ll be recycled (by whoever we sell them to) and calling that sustainable,” Kucharski said. “It’s like covering your eyes because you don’t like what you’re seeing.”

More than 90% of the waste produced in Hawai‘i is shipped to the state, he continued.

“Don’t we have a responsibility to clean up our own mess?” Kucharski asked.

While his question is rhetorical, the potential answers are decidedly opaque. According to Kucharski, selling the state’s waste doesn’t necessarily mean it would be recycled anyway. But dealing with it in-house wouldn’t likely prove financially viable, as economies of scale would come into play.

Hawai‘i’s overall waste production isn’t great enough to cover the cost of constructing a recycling plant along with all the other expenditures that accompany the processing and sale of materials — such as employing staff to clean and sort items coming in, Kucharski explained.

There is neither enough waste nor enough of a market for the recycled waste in Hawai‘i after processing, he continued.

Bottling could be an option. Most breweries in the state, for instance, choose to can beer made and sold in Hawai‘i because of the high cost associated with importing bottling materials.

Thus, a market theoretically exists, but serious questions remain about how great that market would prove to be. And exporting recycled materials from a hypothetical Hawai‘i-based recycling plant would add another layer of cost to a process already seen as economically inviable for a myriad of reasons.

Practical solutions may be out there, Kucharski added, but county recycling policy up to this point hasn’t necessitated seriously considering them.

“There may be answers,” he said. “We haven’t really looked.”

Following Kucharski’s presentation, he remained in the Hilo Council Chambers to discuss Resolution 301-19.

Introduced by Councilman Dr. Tim Richards, the resolution “urges” that DEM and the County Department of Research & Development work together to “develop a plan for a waste stream reduction technology for renewable and alternative energy generation for the County of Hawai‘i.”

Waste-to-energy plants, utilized in European countries like Sweden, burn trash to convert it into power rather than using fossil fuels. Heat is converted into steam, which then spins turbines that generate electricity.

Emissions remain a concern at waste-to-energy plants, but methane produced by landfills is mitigated to a degree through the process. Such a plant’s viability in Hawai‘i would be a question DEM and R&D would have to work together to answer.

What to expect Wednesday

According to a press release, the county’s current 2-Bin recycling program includes a “mixed bin” for recycling of paper, plastic, cardboard/boxboard and aluminum/tin. There is a second “glass bin” for non-HI-5 glass.

As of Wednesday, however, paper and plastics will not be accepted.

The county’s 2-Bin recycling program, offered at designated recycling and transfer stations, will change as follows:

The “2-Bin” recycling program will be downsized to collect only:

  • Corrugated cardboard (clean and not contaminated with food)
  • Brown kraft paper bags (e.g., paper shopping bags)

The “Glass Bin” will continue to collect:

  • Glass bottles and jars
  • Clean non-HI-5 bottles and jars (e.g., wine bottles, pickle jars)
  • No caps, covers or lids
  • Will be collected in the separate “glass” bin

Metal cans previously accepted will now be collected in the scrap metal bins offered at select recycling and transfer stations as follows:

  • Must be clean, small (e.g., tuna, soup, pet food cans)

The HI-5 beverage container redemption program remains in effect. For further information, the public can visit www.hawaiizerowaste.org/2-bin/ for the full list of recyclable items accepted at Hawaiʻi County’s Recycling and Transfer Stations.

Max Dible
Max Dible is a reporter for Big Island Now. He will also serve in a news capacity for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter and radio talk show personality with the Iowa State Daily and KURE 88.5 FM, respectively, in Ames, Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing and his work as a sports columnist.
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