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Equipped with handy blue bins to hold all their recyclables, Honolulu residents can know that instead of breaking down in a sea turtle’s digestive system, their water bottles are destined for a far-off factory.
There, the once-used plastic will presumably be transformed into something else that is useful to mankind.
But as the market value for plastic and other recyclables fluctuates, the cost to collect, sort and ship the discards off the island keeps rising. A recent city audit made it clear: the blue bin program is a financial burden.
In 2009 it cost the city $45 to process one ton of mixed recyclables, including paper, aluminum, plastic and glass though the curbside blue bin program. Last year it cost $142 per ton.
Ending the curbside program and instead incinerating recyclables at H-POWER, Honolulu’s waste-to-energy plant where trash is burned to produce electricity, would save the city millions of dollars, the audit said. Non-recyclable trash in grey bins already goes to H-POWER, and the electricity produced is sold to Hawaiian Electric.
Inspired by the audit, Councilwoman Kymberly Pine introduced a resolution calling on the city to reform its recycling program. The council’s sustainability committee will discuss the topic in December.
While the audit suggests the city incinerate all blue bin recyclables, glass and aluminum don’t burn well at H-POWER, according to Michael O’Keefe, the city’s assistant refuse chief. So most likely any change would involve only plastics and fiber products like cardboard, newspaper and other paper products.
The city only has control over material collected in the blue bins, provided to about 160,000 Oahu households.
In 2011, the latest year for which data was available, the blue bins captured less than 3 percent of Oahu’s recyclables. Private companies collect recyclables from residences and businesses that aren’t served by the blue bin program.
The city’s Department of Environmental Services isn’t looking to completely end its blue bin program, O’Keefe said. But as a response to the rising cost of recycling, it does want the flexibility to burn certain recyclables when their value decreases in the global market, he said.
“The city prioritizes recycling,” O’Keefe said. “We just want to be able to have the flexibility to send it to H-POWER when (recycling) becomes economically and environmentally infeasible.”
The debate over incinerating recyclables has played out for years in Northern European countries where landfill space is limited.
Sweden, Germany and Denmark each have more than 30 incinerators and import trash from other countries to feed the plants. But environmentalists say that encourages people to produce more trash and hinders recycling efforts, which they say are ultimately better for the planet than incinerating discards to produce electricity.
In Hawaii, they also worry about the ash and pollutants emitted from incinerators like H-POWER.
“Bottom line, we are going to fight as much as we can to keep recyclables (from) going to H-POWER,” said Jennifer Milholen, waste reduction coordinator at Kokua Hawaii Foundation, a nonprofit that supports environmental education in schools.
The city launched its blue bin program in 2007, offering residents the convenience of recycling at home without having to sort plastic bottles from aluminum cans and cardboard. That convenience comes at a cost to taxpayers.
Since the program began, the city has contracted with RRR Recycling Services Hawaii to sort the recyclables.
The Kapolei-based company has the most automated processing plant on the island. As conveyor belts pull mixed recyclables along, metals attach to magnets and spinning disks eliminate glass from the procession. RRR Recycling bought the machines over 10 years ago and is still paying them off.
Alongside the machines are employees who remove oodles of plastic bags that would otherwise contaminate the bales of recyclable material.
From 2009 to 2016, Honolulu paid $12.2 million to collect blue bins full of mixed recyclables and have them sorted, according to the audit. Selling the material put $3.2 million back in the city’s pocketbook.
Some money comes in from the state’s Deposit Beverage Container Program, which reimburses recyclers 5 cents per container for qualifying bottles and cans. Two years ago the state began requiring RRR Recycling to sort out all deposit containers individually rather than paying the company based on an estimated number per bale. The company hired three more employees and bought a new machine to comply, driving up its operating costs.
There are global forces at play, too.
Bales are shipped to the mainland, China or South Asian countries, where they are transformed into new products. The value of used plastic, aluminum, newspapers and cardboard dropped in 2009. While the market has rebounded, only aluminum attained pre-recession prices.
Operators of two of Hawaii’s largest recycling companies seem unperturbed by the market cycles. Dominic Henriques of RRR Recycling and Terry Telfer of Reynolds Recycling both believe prices will go up.
“It’s a commodity business,” Telfer said. “We go through market cycles.”
Reynolds Recycling and Island Recycling, another large recyclable exporter on Oahu, both buy and process nonferous metals, like copper and brass. Telfer said he relies on income from those materials when the market slumps for deposit recyclables.
RRR Recycling specializes in deposit recyclables and the contents of those blue bins.
Half of the world’s used plastic and waste paper were exported to China in 2016, The Economist reported. When the Chinese government announced in July it would be more selective about what types of recyclables it would accept, companies around around the world braced for change.
Last month companies in Washington and Oregon said they may send bottles and cans to landfills instead of recycling them.
Henriques is confident Southeast Asian countries will take in the recyclables that China rejects. His company already sends cardboard to Malaysia.
“You have all these other countries that are hungry for the material,” he said.
Henriques added that glass is detrimental to Oahu’s recycling system. It isn’t worth much and it cuts up machines that sort glass from other discards.
“Glass has a negative value,” he said. “All the other products have to carry the weight of glass.”
Panos Prevedouros, chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said burning recyclables would be better for the city’s pocketbook and the environment.
That’s in part because a contract with Covanta Honolulu Resource Recovery Venture, the company that runs H-POWER, requires the city to deliver 800,000 tons of trash to the plant every year or pay a fine. The contract doesn’t expire for another 15 years, and Honolulu keeps falling short of the requirement.
The city has paid Covanta more than $1 million annually in fines since 2013 for not supplying enough material.
In 2015 the city was 81,400 tons short of the requirement. The blue bin program collected 22,400 tons total that year.
Covanta shares the revenue from the electricity it produces with the city, and burning more trash generates more revenue.
The way Prevedouros sees it, more trash burned at H-POWER also means less fossil fuel consumed use to produce electricity.
As of last year, most of Oahu’s electricity came from oil or coal. Renewable energy like wind and solar still produced less than 20 percent of the island’s total, according to data from Hawaiian Electric.
“We are resource-poor when it comes to generating electricity,” Prevedouros said, adding he thinks Honolulu should even consider importing trash from neighbor islands for incineration.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has a waste management hierarchy that ranks trash disposal methods according to what’s most environmentally friendly. The hierarchy places recycling above incineration.
“They’re tailoring policy and recommendations to fit the needs of a bad contract versus the needs of the city and county,” said Milholen from Kokua Hawaii Foundation.
Recycling’s value to the planet is the reduced need for raw materials to produce goods, said Jeffrey Morris of Sound Resource Management Group, an economic and environmental consulting firm based in Washington state. For example, creating a soda can from recycled aluminum leaves a smaller carbon footprint than mining iron ore to make the same product.
But a 15-year career studying recycling has left Roland Geyer, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, skeptical of its environmental benefits.
“There is very scant evidence that we are actually reducing primary material consumption when we recycle,” Geyer said. “If there was, recycling would be great.”
Waste prevention — throwing less stuff away — sits atop the EPA’s hierarchy.
Stuart Colman of the Surfrider Foundation, a local environmental advocacy group, proposed a ban on all single-use plastics on Oahu. He pointed to the city’s plastic bag ban and measures that would ban foam containers.
Local environmental groups worry more trash burned means more pollutants emitted from H-POWER.
O’Keefe said the state monitors federal air quality standards regarding H-POWER emissions, and that the city is asking companies to submit proposals for the beneficial reuse or recycling of ash or residue that now ends up in the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill.
Barry Nakamoto of H-POWER said burning plastics in particular would create emissions that raise the company’s greenhouse gas profile.
“We’d prefer the plastics get recycled,” he said. “But if the city decides to send it here we’re prepared to process it.”
The recycling industry is the state’s largest exporter, said Telfer of Island Recycling. Some argue the state would do well to keep the material and find local uses.
Mainland factories that squish soda cans into sheets of aluminum wouldn’t be practical in Hawaii, said Darren Park of the state’s Office of Solid Waste Management.
“It’s very difficult to create a closed loop recycling system in Hawaii,” he said. “There is an inherent cost because we live on an island in the middle of the ocean.”
Island factories would likely need to import additional recyclables to make such a venture profitable rather than exporting them.
Still, on-island recycling might be feasible for some materials.
Cardboard and paper products could be blended with food and green waste to create soil, said Colman of the Surfrider Foundation.
Councilwoman Pine is considering amending her resolution to suggest the city find ways to use recyclable material on-island, such as crushing glass, which is made from sand, into powder to “replenish our beaches,” according to Richard Levine, her executive assistant.
Glass could also be crushed and mixed with asphalt to create “glassphalt” for road construction, said Prevedouros.
Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, chair of the sustainability committee, said in the 1990s the state and city transportation departments tried to launch a glassphalt program but it failed because the cost to crush the glass outweighed financial benefits.