Honolulu has an opala problem.

A city audit in October revealed that the cost of paper, plastic, glass, cardboard and aluminum recycling has more than tripled over the past eight years. It would actually save more than $4 million dollars annually to instead burn the blue-bin waste at the city’s waste-to-energy plant in Campbell Industrial Park.

The Honolulu City Council has an opportunity beginning in January to reform our recycling operation. Councilwoman Kymberly Pine has already introduced a resolution to divert all recyclable materials to H-POWER.

That’s a start, but any policy change should include examining how Honolulu can still make progress on recycling.

While Oahu has made progress in recent years — it includes the blue, green and gray curbside bins, phasing down the use of plastic bags in stores and H-5 Redemption Centers for beverage containers — the hard reality is that we live on an island.

The Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill is not limitless. And yet, we keep creating more trash.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

That’s why the issue keeps coming up, as it did in 2004, when then Mayor Jeremy Harris rejected proposals to ship some of Oahu’s trash to dumps on the mainland and then-councilman Rod Tam entertained the notion of turning Koko Crater into a landfill.

The limitations of the existing landfill near Ko Olina are also found on other Hawaii islands, where the decision to expand or relocate the facility divides communities.

Compounding the City and County of Honolulu’s opala challenge is that it must also meet a quota of providing 800,000 tons of solid waste to Covanta, which operates H-POWER. When it did not do that between 2013 and 2016, it had to pay $6.2 million for lost electrical revenue.

There are other opala woes, such as market downturn in the sale of recycled materials. Some recyclables, like aluminum and glass, don’t burn well. And few will welcome more pollutants expelled into our skies.

Honolulu’s waste-to-energy plant, H-POWER is run by Covanta. But it also pollutes.

Courtesy of the City and County of Honolulu

That’s why more on-island recycling options need to be perused, perhaps with government assistance.

In addition to burning more recyclables, the auditor’s recommendations include encouraging efforts “toward source reduction” through community education and legislative change. Another suggests modifying or canceling contracts that guarantee specific amounts of waste and guarantee electrical revenues to contractors.

The sad fact is that the world generates at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste a day, a tenfold increase in a century’s time.

“On average, Americans throw away their own body weight in trash every month,” researchers report.

This Thanksgiving and the Black Friday that follows, we will only add to that pile of trash. While the City Council unfortunately needs to burn more recycled material to pay Covanta, that’s a requirement that needs to be changed once we can make recycling work.

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