Big Island Solid Waste Management Plan Outlined, Headed for Testimony

December 10, 2019, 11:12 AM HST (Updated December 12, 2019, 5:07 PM)
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Landfill,Transfer Station, Solid Waste. PC: pixabay, April 2019

Every year, Hawai‘i County produces around a half billion pounds of solid waste. Every 10 years, it’s obligated to update the official plan on how to manage these veritable mountains of rubbish.

Using the 2009 plan as a guide, the County’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee (SWAC) made 82 recommendations for the next iteration, highlighting six as the highest priorities:

  1. Education and Outreach
  2. Renegotiate Contract with Hawaii Waste Management
  3. Additional Household Hazardous Waste Collection Events
  4. Change County Code to Allow Small Businesses to Drop of Recyclables at Recycling and Transfer Stations
  5. Establish Environmental Impact Goals in Addition to Tonnage-Based Landfill Diversion or Waste Recovery Goals
  6. Develop County Policy and Ordinances Related to Source Reduction and Recycling

“You can not stop educating the public,” George Hayducsko, County recycling coordinator and SWAC chairperson, said Monday night.

Hayduckso spoke as the host of a public information session on the Solid Waste Integrated Management Plan (Plan) held at the NELHA Gateway Center in Kailua-Kona.

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Most of SWAC’s top priorities for the Plan face significant obstacles, but one of the greatest challenges involves its sixth objective — developing County policy and ordinances related to source reduction and recycling. In October, the County did exactly the opposite.

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

Bill Kucharski, director of the County Department of Environmental Management, cited a significant decline in Chinese and other Southeast Asian markets as a primary factor in the decision.

In other words, the County formerly rid the island of its recyclables by selling them. Now, it can’t find a suitable buyer.

Hayduckso said recycling has declined between 1–1.5% on the Big Island during the 56 days since transfer stations stopped accepting certain recyclables. If the numbers remain in that range, however, he says they can be mitigated.

“If everyone in the community recycled cardboard, we’d make that up,” Hayduckso said.

Throwing recyclables in the garbage is still a problem, even with changes to the County’s recycling policy that are sending more reusable materials to the landfill.

Business Services Hawaii, the County’s recycling vendor, is still accepting paper, No. 1 and No. 2 plastics if they’re clean, and tin cans. However, the recyclables must be hauled to the company’s location in Hilo. Further information can be accessed online.

Another top priority for SWAC is renegotiating its contract with Hawaii Waste Management. But that may prove a nonstarter for HWM, which is responsible for managing the West Hawai‘i Sanitary Landfill — the only open landfill on the island.

When the County entered into a deal with HWM roughly a quarter century ago, the arrangement agreed upon extended for the life of the landfill. That lifespan is estimated at approximately 100 years, meaning HWM isn’t contractually obligated to sit down at the negotiating table with the County again until around the turn of the 22nd century.

Under the stipulations of the deal, HWM generates revenue based on the volume of rubbish it accepts. The County is obligated to provide the company with a minimum amount of solid waste at regular intervals — a stipulation in direct conflict with efforts toward source reduction and zero waste goals.

A third objective, altering County code to allow for small businesses to recycle at island transfer and recycle stations, is relatively straightforward but comes with some unanswered questions and points of ambiguity.

The term “small business” would have to be expressly defined and the manner of definition agreed upon. Whether County facilities could support all qualifying small businesses on the island while still servicing residents in an efficient manner can’t be known until small business is defined and recycling interest among those companies is gauged.

Opening transfer and recycling stations to the business community would likely require the DEM Solid Waste Division to hire more employees, which means more taxpayer dollars funneled into waste management. Staff shortages within the Division are already causing several transfer station closures on a monthly, and often weekly, basis.

Attendees at Monday’s information session complained that beyond just keeping the doors open, employee shortages make using transfer stations more confusing and less convenient.

Trash is piling up even faster now that recycling policies have shifted on the Big Island.

Long lines sometimes lead to frustrated residents dumping trash in recycle bins, which contaminates the load and destroys the core purpose of recycling. More regulation of illegal on-site dumping would also require additional staff.

Hayduckso said SWAC did not do a deep dive into financials to generate estimates on how great an employment increase the Division would require, or how much a projected increase would cost.

Mayor Harry Kim asked the County Council this year to approve 10 new positions at DEM, but all of those are reserved for staffing the upgraded Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The public comment period for written testimony on the Plan and SWAC’s recommendations has already begun. The internet portal to submit written testimony is available online.

Public hearings for oral testimony are scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 21 in Hilo and Thursday, Jan. 23 in Kailua-Kona. Representatives of the County will not be allowed to answer questions during those meetings, only receive testimony.

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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