Honolulu cannot legitimately meet its sustainability goals while its waste and energy policies rely on infrastructure fueled by perpetual consumption.

Honolulu Magazine’s recent article, “Should Honolulu’s Recycling Program Go Up in Flames?” b​egan by questioning the value of Honolulu’s recycling program. It diverged quickly, though, into a reverent outline of why Honolulu’s waste­-to-energy facility, HPOWER, is a panacea for Honolulu’s waste and energy woes.

Here’s the problem: HPOWER was created to relieve the overflowing landfills strained by our unchecked generation of imported trash. But, in order for HPOWER to continue being relevant and function, Honolulu has to perpetually create more and more waste. Effectively, the city and county have built a system that leaves no incentive to reduce consumption and divert resources like recyclables or organics.

Plastic Bags and a Tour of HPOWER

Plastic bags await burning at the H-POWER plant.

Civil Beat

Our reliance on HPOWER has us locked into a “feed the beast” cycle that we have to break. Unlike the sun, wind and waves, trash is​ not​ a renewable resource. If Oahu is to become truly self­sustaining, then we have to seek long­-term planning that includes large­-scale composting and source reduction policies. We cannot be pacified by short­sighted solutions that encourage us to let precious resources go up in smoke.

The objections raised in the article to recycling are by no means insurmountable. Honolulu would not need to be subject to the fluctuations of a fickle commodities market if it created a local processing facility sized to the volume of recyclables imported. The third HPOWER boiler alone cost $302 million. Imagine ​if Honolulu had spent that on new recycling and composting facilities. These could manufacture products to be used here in Hawaii or even for export.

Innovative programs could be established like the “Milkman model” to reclaim glass bottles for reuse and rebottling in Hawaii. No shipping or processing required.​ H​ow many more local industries would innovate, follow suit and shift our local economy for the better?

Oahu has the ingenuity to create long-­term solutions that recognize our waste stream as an opportunity to recapture resources and keep them from being burned away forever.

Creating a legitimate zero-waste Oahu is entirely possible without relying on the burning of resources.

First, recognize what we’re already burning. A 2006 waste characterization study found that upwards of 40 percent of what is being captured in the waste stream could be composted. Instead of being burned away, a valuable end product is made that could create a large, local industry with new jobs. This would expand on the work of Hawaiian Earth Products, which is already composting 100,000 tons of green waste for use in Hawaii.

Next, create policies that reflect Oahu’s commitment to source reduction (importing less trash-­to­-be) and local processing of materials. The Honolulu Magazine article spoke of the volume and type of trash generated in Hawaii as an immutable factor. But, Oahu, and Hawaii as a whole, has control over what comes into our ports. Hawaii can implement policies that require imports to meet standards of compostability and minimal packaging. We can require companies that want to bring in recyclables to pay a small fee to cover the costs of establishing a local resources recovery facility.

Oahu has the ingenuity, creativity, and organizing power to create long-­term solutions that recognize our waste stream for what it is: an opportunity. This is an opportunity to recapture resources and keep them from being burned away forever. Waste-­to-­energy may well play a role in dealing with materials that cannot be composted or recycled, but it cannot be our main tool.

The Rise Above Plastics coalition does not support reducing recycling in the interest of “feeding the beast.” These are resources, not waste, and we should finally begin shifting our policies and infrastructure to honor that distinction.

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About the Author

  • Jennifer Milholen
    Milholen is president of Styrophobia, a local nonprofit dedicated to facilitating statewide composting and eliminating single­-use plastics in Hawaii. She is specifically interested in facilitating the diversion of organic resources from the waste stream into projects that revitalize Hawaii’s local agriculture sector. Milholen also works with Pono Home, a local energy and water efficiency company that provides customized assessments and fixture installations to dramatically lower utility bills.