Are we running out of room for our garbage?

On Kauai, the answer is an unequivocal yes. As the bulging Kekaha landfill approaches maximum capacity, county officials are sleuthing to find the island’s 86,900 tons of annual waste a new final resting place.

A replacement municipal landfill is expected to cost taxpayers $65 million, plus another $20 million for an access road.

“It will end up being the largest single public works project for the island of Kauai ever,” said Lyle Tabata, Kauai County’s deputy director of public works.

Following a decade of study and community outreach, the county has settled on a preferred host site for its future trove of trash: A swath of state land in Hanamaulu off Maalo Road. A draft environmental impact statement expected to be published before the end of 2017 must win approval from the public and state planning officials before the permitting process can move forward and construction can commence.

The Kauai’s Kekaha  landfill is running out of space to take additional garbage. After a decade of study the county has identified a preferred site for a new $65 million facility. Brittany Lyte/ Civil Beat/2017

“I pray every night,” Tabata said. “The study took a look at eight different locations on the island and only one of them had a willing landowner. We have spent many, many years on this. If this doesn’t get approved, I don’t know if there are any other options on this island that are feasible.”

Apart from the fact that each alternate site lacks a landowner keen to take on the project, Tabata said the seven other parcels are problematic because they are located within close proximity to a stream or groundwater source that could potentially become contaminated by leachate, the contaminated fluid landfills produce and can leak should the leachate collection system fail.

All eight sites have faced opposition from residents who don’t want to become the dump site for the island’s trash, which is why Tabata said he does not consider the county’s appeal for public approval of the Maalo Road plan a slam dunk.

“It’s NIMBY,” Tabata said. “But I believe we have commitment and support of the Hanamaulu community. People understand this is something that has to be done.”

The landfill would initially occupy 160 acres, with room for a 110-acre expansion. Project plans also include a refuse recovery park and a training center where school children could learn about the impacts of the waste they produce.

Meanwhile, county officials are focused on revving up recycling to ensure the current landfill remains fit to absorb the island’s waste until a new one is ready to be built. A planned lateral expansion of the Kekaha landfill should make feasible a deadline of 2026 before the transition to a new site becomes imperative.

The county’s waste diversion rate hovers at 43 percent. That’s a significant increase from the 29 percent waste diversion rate in 2008, but it’s nowhere near where the county had hoped to be by the end of this decade.

County officials recently abandoned an ambitious goal to achieve a 70 percent waste diversion rate by 2020. The reason lies in a decision to put on hold a plan to skyrocket recycling by implementing a residential curbside program due to the high cost of implementation.

“With our county size as small as it is, there are challenges,” Tabata said. “For us to implement a curbside recycling program requires a capital investment of about $10 million. Not included is another $8 million, maybe up to $10 million, for the trucks and bins we would need to implement the program.”

“It’s on the back burner while we focus on the new landfill because when you start adding up all the different costs on this project it just becomes huge.”

Meanwhile, the island’s annual tonnage of trash is rising. The trick will be to ensure that the waste diversion rate continues to climb in step with the landfill’s garbage intake.

As the island grapples with the difficulty of preparing a new burial ground for its waste, here’s a thought worth considering: Kauai’s recyclables travel as far as the U.S. mainland and China to be remade into new products. The longer the journey, the greater the greenhouse gas emissions.

How does that compare to burying a hunk of plastic in a landfill? It’s hard to say.

Yet even as recycling, composting and waste-to-energy initiatives increase, experts agree that there will always be need for a landfill to dispose of at least some of Kauai’s trash.

Landfills are costly to design and maintain, but they’re also expensive to shut down. The county estimates that it will spend $20 million to close the Kekaha landfill, and another half-million dollars for annual post-closure maintenance.

Money is already being set aside to help fund the post-closure fees, Tabata said.

“We are planning so that we don’t get caught off-guard,” Tabata said. “This is something we are going to be committed to paying for every single year for a long time.”

What might become of the Kekaha landfill after it is shuttered remains to be seen. Ideas born of discussions at public meetings include a golf course, sports field, amphitheater or coastal overlook.

Yet Kauai needn’t look farther than Oahu for an example an old landfill transformed into a community asset: The grass and palm tree-covered Kakaako Waterfront Park.

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