You probably haven’t worried about this little-noticed impact of Honolulu’s daily newspaper monopoly.

The merger of the two formerly competing newspapers can be blamed, at least in part, for the demise of the city’s popular network of white community recycling bins, according to a recent city report.

The report released last month by the Department of Environmental Services said the shift to a single monopoly newspaper, coupled with the continuing drift of readers to digital access, reduced the amount of newsprint being deposited into the white bins, leaving more space for lighter cardboard boxes, often unflattened.

The result was a reduction in the average weight of a full bin by 50 percent or more, from two to three tons a decade ago to one ton. There was a similar decline in recycling revenue, the city says.

The success of the HI-5 beverage container redemption program and the expansion of curbside recycling also contributed substantially to reduced use of the community bins.

The city says the total amount of recyclable material collected in the white bins dropped from 12,000 tons in fiscal year 2007 to 4,000 tons in FY2012, with per-ton costs to collect and process rising substantially.

At the program’s peak, there were white bins at 120 locations across the island.

But this year Mayor Peter Carlisle’s administration decided the $1.5 million program no longer made economic sense, and rather abruptly pulled the plug at the end of June. Although the city council reinserted $2.4 million into the current budget to continue the white bin program, and some of the bins have been left in place by the former contractor, the mayor refused to release the funds to continue.

So after two decades of being told to recycle and encouraged to rely on the community bins, suddenly most of them are gone. Those that remain quickly fill to overflowing, and we’re stuck in Kaaawa with a growing stack of previously read newspapers, a generous stash of empty wine bottles, and a growing pile of other recyclables with nowhere to go.

I’m still fuming about Carlisle’s decision to kill the white bin program and I don’t think I’m alone.

The city acknowledges that many residents are left out of the curbside recycling program, including those who live in areas where recycling isn’t offered, the tens of thousands of people who live in condominiums that don’t get city refuse pickup, along with the 50 or so schools the city says have active campus recycling programs.

Others complain that the city’s twice per month schedule for curbside recycling doesn’t keep up with the needs of many households, resulting in trash spilling from overflowing blue bins. In a classic of bureaucratic logic, a city official earlier this year responded to June Watanabe, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Kokua Line columnist, by referring people to the white community bins to handle their excess recyclables, at the same time the city was in the process of killing the community bin program.

It also appears there’s suddenly a bit of messy city-state politics involved. Although the program managed to find a way past the bureaucratic turf war between the city-sponsored recycling program and the state-run Department of Education for over 20 years, the city now says the community bins are no longer feasible because of the tangled web of overlapping jurisdictions.

Testimony during City Council deliberations on the future of the community recycling program overwhelmingly supported its continuation. There was testimony from students, teachers, community supporters, condominium residents, even from other recycling companies, many stressing the broader educational component to school-community recycling that has importance out of proportion to the immediate economic returns.

Schools are “are investing in teaching a new generation good habits of environmental stewardship,” one petition argued. “Students who have grown up practicing recycling in school bring these habits home to their families and communities. Without the white bins at schools, these students would have to reverse their habits and start throwing away their recyclables.”

While the city stresses the reduced amounts of materials collected through the community bins since the expansion of curbside recycling, it still amounts to 4,000 tons annually, about 20 percent of what is collected curbside. That’s not an inconsiderable sum.

If curbside recycling gets the bulk of the most readily accessible materials, the community bins still bring in 8 million pounds that would otherwise end up along our roads or in our landfill.

And there’s an ample supply of short-sightedness in dismantling the network of 120 school-based community recycling sites that took 20 years to develop, instead of keeping the infrastructure intact while perhaps transitioning to new and more efficient containers and collection systems. For example, the city says front or side-loading trucks that pick up collection bins and compact the contents “can achieve better haul efficiencies,” suggesting that a redesign could have been feasible.

In the end, it seems to me recycling, like many public services, shouldn’t be reduced to strict dollars and cents, or be expected to function without public subsidies. That’s why we have a city government, to provide services collectively for the mutual benefit of the community.

And when I pour a glass of wine with dinner tonight, I’ll be reminded the city’s decision to eliminate community recycling leaves nowhere for the bottle to go except into the trash can. That, to me, reflects a regrettable public policy failure.

Read Ian Lind’s blog at iLind.net.

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