Do you think it’s a good idea to burn our trash?

Consider some of the options. Several years ago, Honolulu city officials tried to ship it off island and that didn’t work out at all. Burying it is not a very attractive choice, as landfills continue to fill up across the islands.

Reducing the amount of waste we produce and increasing the extent of our recycling are efforts worthy of pursuit. One challenge is that both steps will require pretty extensive behavior modification.

The concept of burning garbage in a way that simultaneously produces clean energy sounds like an idea that’s too good to be true. Critics say it is, citing a list of reasons why they believe it involves more than a small piece of magical thinking.

Waimanalo Landfill work continues 2014

The Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill represents just one way of dealing with our waste.

What if there was a way to reduce the amount of garbage we toss out, reuse more of the materials we routinely throw away, and increase the amount we recycle? Seemingly, most folks would consider this to be a positive direction for a policy future.

The experiences of a small country across the Pacific may be useful to consider in that context. We’ll return to that in a bit.

First, you should know that reducing solid waste is one of the state’s policy goals — and you can now track our progress on a government website.

That website is part of the “Aloha Challenge” put together by the group Hawaii Green Growth, which describes itself as “a multi-sector voluntary partnership of more than 60 leaders from government, non-governmental and cultural organizations, business, academia and philanthropy” whose work aims to help Hawaii “achieve a more secure, sustainable and resilient future.”

For the past several years, HGG has been identifying and tracking sustainable goals for Hawaii, a project that continues. As part of following solid waste, this “dashboard approach” covers the doings of H-POWER, Honolulu’s massive incinerator, or “waste-to-energy” facility.

Not All Renewable Energy is Equal

Here’s where the path to a sustainable future takes a few twists. For starters, burning garbage to produce energy counts as “renewable energy”: the same category as solar energy and wind power.

The Environmental Protection Agency does make an interesting distinction, however, explaining that “separated municipal solid waste” is renewable. The EPA defines that as “separated yard waste or food waste which is material remaining after separation actions have been taken to remove recyclable paper, cardboard, plastics” and other materials from municipal solid waste.

This underlines the point that the concept and practice of separation of waste is a critical step in a broader process.

Plastic Bags and a Tour of HPOWER

Plastic bags await burning at Honolulu’s H-POWER plant.

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Here’s another twist: the newest boiler at H-POWER is what’s known as a “mass burn” facility. That means there’s no effort at separating waste before burning it. The temperatures are high enough that it will torch just about anything. The key here is to consider the type of consumer behavior this engenders: if most of the trash is thrown together for burning, what’s the incentive for separating the waste stream into various components to make better use of some of its elements?

One other point about large waste-to-energy facilities: They usually include a provision known as “put or pay.” This means a municipality agrees to put a certain amount of solid waste into the facility, or make a payment if that minimum has not been reached.

In the case of the City and County of Honolulu, that provision cost taxpayers $1.3 million in the latest fiscal year, and will likely cost close to a million dollars more in the current fiscal year.

Not all waste to energy facilities are created equal. This is a massive multi-billion-dollar global industry, which include some facilities that do extensive separation of waste streams before burning a relatively small amount of material that remains.

The Singapore Model

And that brings us to Singapore. Like their counterparts in Hawaii, Singapore government officials also want to cut down on solid waste. The country has adopted measures that encourage companies to reduce their amount of packaging, and has created incentives for companies (including hotels and restaurants) to increase recycling.

Singapore also has a longstanding culture of recycling; one that has been folded into its approach to waste management.  In 2014, Singapore’s National Environmental Agency reports the country generated about seven and a half million tons of waste, and recycled nearly 60 percent of it. That includes wood used in biomass plants, but it does not include the material sent to its other waste-to-energy plants.

Singapore’s situation is not perfect, nor is it directly transferable to Hawaii. The country does not conduct composting as part of its waste disposal operations and officials readily acknowledge they face a tremendous challenge when it comes to food waste, less than 15 percent of which is recycled. But it’s working on pilot programs to improve that figure.

Singapore has adopted measures that encourage companies to reduce their amount of packaging, and has created incentives for companies (including hotels and restaurants) to increase recycling.

For Hawaii, in coming months we will hear more details about proposals for facilities on Maui and Hawaii Island suggesting various methods combining waste management and energy generation. They range in description from “waste to energy facilities” to “resource recovery” and “energy conversion.” Whatever the labels, each project should be able to answer some basic questions:

• Is the separation of the waste stream part of the approach?

• What’s the impact on recycling — is this something that is likely to increase or decrease the rate of consumer and business participation in such programs?

• Is there a realistic plan for the beneficial use of green waste?

• Is there a realistic plan to deal with food waste?

• What are the benefits to the community and what are the costs and is the project sustainable?

There is no perfect solution to the challenges of waste and energy, and few easy answers. But reasonable responses to the points above can at least provide a starting point for further discussion and community consideration.

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About the Author

  • Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman is News Director at Hawaii Public Radio. He lived and worked in Asia for 10 years, covering stories from more than a dozen countries and territories for CNN and Bloomberg News. His broadcast experience also includes work in New York and Washington, D.C. His “Asia Minute” feature can be heard weekday mornings on HPR.