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Elliot Telles stands over a steaming tub of pig slop – food waste being cooked down to a soup he feeds the 480 pigs on his farm.
Beside him 70-gallon plastic trash cans with the “EcoFeed” label wait to be picked up, hauled to restaurants, filled with food scraps and brought back to Telles’ Waianae farm.
Telles, who owns Jay’s Hog Farm, doesn’t pay for this service. But he depends on it.
The city requires large restaurants and cafeterias to recycle food waste their customers don’t eat. EcoFeed and a handful of other companies charge restaurants to transport the scraps to Oahu piggeries, supplying Terres a free and consistent source of hog feed.
A $4 million appropriation to build a food waste processing facility could either upend or complement Oahu’s food waste recycling system. That depends on how Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration, which doesn’t believe a new facility is needed, chooses to spend that money.
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who added the $4 million to the city’s budget, is proposing the city build a facility to turn food waste into compost for distribution to local farms.
The central Honolulu representative wants to see food scraps as well as napkins, paper plates – the whole compostable picnic – turned into rich soil.
“We’re on an island so we should be recycling and then using the compost that’s produced in our parks (and) in our farms, instead of buying compost from the mainland,” she said. “That’s real recycling.”
The City Council approved the appropriation Wednesday as a part of its fiscal year 2019 capital budget, which funds infrastructure and construction projects.
It’s unclear how much waste would still be available for piggeries if a new composting facility is built.
Telles worries the plan will eventually divert food waste away from pig farms and hurt his business. Once his pigs grow to 100 pounds, Telles starts the animals on grain he buys from the mainland.
Those bags of grains make up one-third of his operating costs, or about $4,000 per month. At those prices, Telles cannot afford to raise pigs on grain alone.
“I totally understand wanting to keep the food waste out of the landfill but if they do end up diverting it away from the (pig) farms that would just be another hit to Hawaii agriculture,” Telles said.
But Kobayashi says Honolulu produces more food waste than piggeries can take. What’s left over, she said, ends up at H-POWER, Honolulu’s waste-to-energy incinerator that burns most non-recyclable trash produced on Oahu.
Restaurants and businesses tossed more than 42,000 tons of food scraps in 2016, according to the earliest available data from the city.
It’s hard to know whether all the extras end up at the H-Power plant after piggeries take what they need. EcoFeed did not return requests for comments.
If the city started churning out compost at a good price, farmers would buy it, said Jesse Cooke of the Ulupono Initiative, an investment firm dedicated to food and energy sustainability. But hauling costs could make food waste composting expensive.
Restaurants pay haulers $15 to $20 per 70-gallon barrel to transport their food waste to piggeries.
For Kobayashi’s idea to work, it has to be cheaper for restaurants to send the waste to the new city facility than sending it to piggeries.
“It’ll help (farmers), but if you want to make it work you have to make it economical for all those food waste suppliers. That’s where it gets tough,” Cook said.
If the city is ready to invest in food waste recycling, University of Hawaii Manoa professors Rajesh Jha and Halina Zaleski see a golden opportunity.
Honolulu table scraps could be a boon to neighbor island pig farmers, Jha and Zaleski say, if taxpayer dollars were spent on an industrial food dehydrator instead of a composting facility.
“That would be a big game changer,” said Jha, who studies animal nutrition.
Pig farmers on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island pay restaurants for table scraps, unlike Oahu’s system. But Oahu’s food waste surplus can’t be easily shipped off island unless the food is dehydrated.
The dehydrated scraps would also make for healthier, faster growing pigs than the soupy slop farmers like Telles feed their animals. About 70 percent of the food waste collected for pigs is water, according to Zaleski, a swine specialist.
Just as humans can’t survive on a diet of soup, pigs can’t survive on food that’s mostly water.
But Zaleski said building a dehydrator would probably cost taxpayers closer to $6 million.
Such a system would help Hawaii adhere to the Environmental Protection Agency’s food recovery hierarchy, which prioritizes feeding people and animals before composting.
Kobayashi said she is open to the idea, but the dehydrator idea has its critics.
Glenn Shinsato, who owned a farm of about 1,000 pigs before he shut his business down in 2016, said hogs fed on food scraps make for a poor quality, inconsistent pork product.
“It’s like a computer: garbage in, garbage out,” said Shinstato, whose grain-fed pigs were sold to local supermarkets.
Other pig farmers are supportive.
Island Topspoil, a company that turns green waste collected from landscapers into compost, also raises 400 pigs fed on imported grain. The company switched from food slop to grain-fed pigs to improve the quality of the meat, said Lorra Naholowaa, the company’s soil operation manager.
Naholowaa said if the city started dehydrating food scraps for pigs, she would consider switching her hogs back to table scraps.
“In Hawaii the reason livestock farmers are having such a hard time is because we generally don’t have access to feed here in the islands,” Naholowaa said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am an avid believer and composter myself. There is a place for compost, no doubt about it. I just see the higher calling to our food security issues.”
Honolulu almost had a food waste composting system.
The city agreed in 2015 to a 10-year contract with Hawaiian Earth Recycling to process all the tree trimmings and yard waste collected in residents’ green bins. The initial contract included processing some food waste and sewage.
But the city changed the contract to eliminate food waste and sewage, and is paying Hawaiian Earth Recycling $11.4 million – $866,990 annually – for that change, Honolulu Environmental Services Director Lori Kahikina said in an email.
Hawaiian Earth Recycling is the only company on Oahu permitted by the Department of Health for composting in an enclosed facility, the type of composting that councilwoman Kobayashi’s money can be spent on.
So if the city puts out bids for the $4 million project, Hawaiian Earth Recycling is the only company eligible.
Hawaiian Earth Recycling did not respond to requests for comment.
At $79.68 per ton, the city already pays Hawaiian Earth Recycling more than it should to process green waste, according to Kahikina.
“Even if you do 3 percent increase compounded, we really should only be paying about $51 per ton,” she said at an April Budget committee meeting.
Meanwhile, the Caldwell administration is cool to the idea of building any new plant.
Paying even more to build and operate a food waste plant would cost taxpayers even more, and add to the costs of transporting the food from restaurants to the site.
“H-POWER is able to effectively process any food waste that ends up in the residential waste stream, so we do not think a commercial food waste facility (which would come at significant taxpayer cost) is necessary at this time,” Kahikina said.
The Ulupono Initiatve was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.
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