In Honolulu’s most densely populated neighborhoods, residents and a City Council woman say the city’s month-old bulky item pickup pilot program is failing to keep garbage off the street, as piles of bulky trash continue to grow in areas such as Makiki and Chinatown.

This is despite the program’s efforts to push residents to consider sustainable alternatives to trashing their bulky items.

The city transitioned from monthly pickups to an appointment system in test neighborhoods, with limits on the number of items each property can legally dump per appointment. However, this has proved especially unpopular with apartment and condominium residents and managers, as these complexes produce significantly more bulky trash than their single-family counterparts.

In response to these complaints, the city is making adjustments that officials say will allow the program to better serve residents currently living in areas with a large number of multi-family units. 

While the city has yet to issue any fines to residents in violation of the new policy, residents are also worried that the city will punish homeowners for trash they say was illegally dumped on their curbs by other residents.

Trash along Maunakea Street on the Beretania end of Maunakea street.

Trash along Maunakea Street has green stickers put there by city officials warning the property owner that the trash is in violation of city policy.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

With the previous system, the city designated specific time periods every month in which crews would drive through neighborhoods and collect any unwanted bulky items that residents left on the curb.

But in an effort to curb the volume of items sent to the incinerator and boost worker efficiency, the city launched a pilot program requiring individual homeowners living between Salt Lake and Hawaii Kai to first schedule an appointment with the Department of Environmental Services before the city will send a crew to collect this bulky trash.

Homeowners first began scheduling pickups online or over the phone on May 15, with the first appointments taking place on June 3. Under the new system, residents are allowed only one appointment per month, with single-family homes limited to five items per appointment and multi-family buildings limited to 20.

Residents are only allowed to place their bulky trash on the curb the night before their appointment and are required to specify the items needing to be picked up. Anything beyond the allotted items will be left in place and must be removed by the residents.

Tim Houghton, deputy director of the Department of Environmental Services, said the city established these conditions to encourage residents to find ways to reuse or donate their bulky items instead of dumping them. It also could cut back on the amount of time bulky trash spends on city streets and sidewalks.

Good For Some, Worse For Others

But nearly 20 days into the pilot, residents and lawmakers in neighborhoods primarily composed of buildings with multiple units say the new system is not working, and may actually be worsening an already bad illegal dumping situation.

Makiki resident Edgy Lee, whose family owns property in the neighborhood, described “mountains full of trash” filled with filthy mattresses, rusting appliances, and even broken refrigerators filled with food left to rot.

Lee said that her neighborhood is home to several illegal dumping hot spots, and that the piles of trash have only grown since the pilot began in early June because the new plan failed to address the root of the problem and stop the source of the trash.

“It’s coming from everybody, it’s coming from renovated buildings, landlords who are clearing out places and they just find sidewalk areas to dump these filthy things,” Lee said.

“They just find sidewalk areas to dump these filthy things” — Edgy Lee, Makiki resident

Makiki is represented by Honolulu City Council member Ann Kobayashi who said while the pilot is running smoothly in less densely populated areas, it fails in neighborhoods packed with renter-occupied condo buildings.

“The areas where there are a lot of rentals always have the most difficulty,” Kobayashi said, “because when people move out, they leave their stuff on the sidewalk.”

“If you have 50 apartments, 20 (items per building) is not really that much when someone’s moving out,” Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi said her district includes many such densely populated neighborhoods, including Makiki, McCully and Moilili.

Trash in Makiki on Liholiho Street.

Trash piled up on the side of a residential street in Makiki, blocking the sidewalk and forcing pedestrians onto the street.


Kobayashi said the situation is worsened because homeowners are only allowed to place items on the curb the night before their appointment, meaning that property managers of multi-family buildings must provide space for occupants to store bulky items until the scheduled time slot.

“Those old buildings don’t have a storage place where they can haul everything back in and leave it in the storage area,” Kobayashi said.

The city is making changes to the pilot program which it hopes will address the concerns of renters and homeowners in denser neighborhoods.

Houghton from the Department of Environmental Services said that the city is scrapping its 20-item limit for multi-family buildings and will instead allow individual units to schedule their own appointments. These families will be limited to five items for each monthly appointment.

It provides a lot more flexibility to make the unit owner responsible for their own trash, Houghton said, and the owner can store it in their own unit until it’s time for pickup.

Houghton said that the city’s scheduling software will automatically group pickup appointments together to avoid having debris on the curb everyday.

Kobayashi said that if the pickup pilot still continues to have problems, the city may have to consider reverting back to the previous system for denser neighborhoods.

Who Is Responsible?

However, many residents are concerned because the city is allowed to fine homeowners with trash piled in front of their property beyond the scheduled pickup date, up to $2,500.

Chinatown resident Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, who serves on Chinatown’s neighborhood board, called the pickup pilot “silly” and said the city’s policy on fines is not fair to homeowners, as much of this trash comes from residents who illegally dump their bulky items on other people’s property.

“You cannot just fine somebody because there is garbage in front of their place,” Shubert-Kwock said. “It may not be their garbage in the first place. Why should they be responsible for some illegal activity or people dumping stuff in front of their house?”

Houghton said that homeowners can avoid being fined by reporting illegal dumping to the Honolulu Police Department or the Department of Environmental Services. He said either his department or the police will deploy someone to determine whether the trash is the product of illegal dumping.

Houghton said that his inspectors have yet to issue fines and instead are focusing on educating homeowners by talking to residents and pasting green information stickers on trash that violates the pickup pilot’s policy.

“We’re going to do what we have the authority to do today and already do, which is enforce, find them and cite.” — Tim Houghton, Department of Environmental Services

But Houghton said the responsibility ultimately falls on the resident to keep the front of their property clear.

By only placing bulky items on the curb the night before the scheduled pick up and by sticking to the item limit, Houghton said that homeowners will lower the chances that other residents will add their own trash to the original pile. He also recommends using commercial trash services, donating items to charity, and hauling items back onto their property for storage.

“If we’ve notified the property management multiple times and they continue to ignore the rules,” Houghton said, “then we’re going to do what we have the authority to do today and already do, which is enforce, find them and cite.”

“The ordinance also says if it’s out in front of your property, you’re the one that we’re allowed to issue the notice of violation to.”

Houghton said that the city will try to avoid simply sending crews to clean up the mess, as they do not want to “encourage bad behavior.”

A Wider Problem

However, Kobayashi said the fine policy is still unfair because it is hard to determine who is responsible for the garbage when calling the police is no guarantee that the perpetrators of the illegal dumping are found.

“The police are just so short-handed and they’re always so busy that it’s hard to keep calling the police for the bulky item pick up,” Kobayashi said. “Because they’ll come and they’ll take photos or whatever and say ‘yes, these are illegally dumped,’ but then what can they do?”

Two water heaters and a refrigerator sit on the sidewalk along Kewalo Street.

Two water heaters and a refrigerator sit on the sidewalk along Kewalo Street in Makiki. Items dumped on the street range from mattresses and sofas to large metal appliances.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The problem of illegal dumping extends far beyond the neighborhoods of Makiki and Chinatown.

A post in the Stolen Stuff Hawaii Facebook group, which tries to combat crime by providing a platform for residents to pool information, inquiring about illegal dumping hotspots garnered over 800 responses in one day. Many commenters highlighted areas throughout urban Honolulu.

Lee said sometimes the trash problem gets so severe that discarded bulky items fully block sidewalks, forcing elderly and children onto the street.

“What is (the city) going to wait for, two kids walking down from Lincoln school, going home to a little two bedroom apartment and getting hit by a car?” Lee said. “Because they can’t walk on the sidewalk because of all the filthy trash.”

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About the Author

  • Joel Lau
    Joel Lau is a Civil Beat summer news intern. He grew up on Oahu and graduated from Hawaii Baptist Academy. He is a student at Boston University, majoring in journalism and political science, and plans to return there for his sophomore year in September. Follow him on Twitter @JoelLau808.