As of October 16, Hawaii County transfer stations are no longer accepting plastic or most paper recycling in the county’s recycling bins, a move driven by a global shift in markets.

The county will continue to accept glass bottles and jars in one bin, and brown paper shopping bags and corrugated cardboard only in the former “mixed” bins.

Some county transfer stations are equipped with scrap metal bins, which will now accept tin and aluminum cans that had formerly gone into the mixed bins with paper and plastic.

Greg Goodale, who heads Hawaii County’s Solid Waste Division, estimates that the change will mean that the county will be shipping “possibly 4,000 tons per year of extra material” to the West Hawaii Landfill, the island’s only active facility, once the Hilo Landfill closes in November. In the short term, that’s not a major problem, he says, since the West Hawaii Landfill has “as much as 150 years of space available.” But he adds, “If you have a lot of room, you still don’t want to squander it,” especially when it means running dozens of extra garbage trucks on the island’s narrow roads.

In 2018, about 224,200 tons were landfilled in Hilo and Puuanahulu (Kona) after more than 58,800 tons — about 20.8% — of waste were diverted, including 37,915 tons of green waste and nearly 21,000 tons of recyclables.

These changes are happening because of China’s “National Sword” recycling directive that imports should have only minor contamination such as food particles or incorrectly sorted plastics.

The dirty waste streams from developed countries had previously been shipped first and sorted once they got there — filling shipping containers that would otherwise have gone home empty after delivering Asian consumer goods to Western markets.

But the dirty waste stream was creating environmental havoc in the destination countries. Other Asian nations such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam soon followed China’s lead, announcing new restrictions on the import of Western recyclables.

The county had an annually renewable contract with Business Services Hawaii to handle recycling. But after China’s policy shift, Business Services began losing markets and money, and told the county it didn’t want to renew.

“This is something that snuck up on us,” Bill Kucharski, director of the Department of Environmental Management, told the County’s Environmental Management Commission last week. “We were not prepared for this, and we had no real indication from our contractor that they wanted to pull the plug.”

Emergency negotiations salvaged a new, temporary contract for a diminished recycling program with Business Services Hawaii that will last until October 1, 2020. Kucharski said the county would probably use that time to issue a request for information to see what services potential vendors could supply for dealing with its waste stream.

The Big Island is trying to find a solution to its recycling woes. Alan McNarie

But the county faces two handicaps in its search for recycling alternatives, says Goodale. It’s a “small fish in a big pond” and it’s the “most distant fish in the world.”

Maui and Kauai counties also face the same disadvantages of geography and scale. Several calls to Maui County’s recycling office were not returned, but Kauai County noted that it made changes to its program last year.

“In February of 2018 the County of Kauai changed the plastic recycling program to only accept #1 and #2 plastic bottles and jars and eliminated plastic clamshells and food trays from the program because these ‘molded’ plastics were no longer recyclable due to limited and restricted markets,” Kauai County Solid Waste Coordinator Alison Fraley wrote in an email.

The county also “changed the mixed paper program rules to allow newspaper to be co-mingled with mixed paper. This was a positive change which allowed for easier recycling of mixed paper and newspaper, and more space at the recycling drop bins.”

Kauai County was able to  preserve its mixed paper recycling program through negotiations with its contractor in December. The county added a provision saying that if the amount they have to pay recyclers to take the paper dropped below $50 a ton, the county would pay excess marketing fees.

“We are sharing the market risk with the contractor, thereby keeping our program intact,” Fraley wrote. “We are fortunate that our recycler was looking ahead of the trends so we could work something out before we hit a market low that they couldn’t cover.”

The neighbor islands could cooperate to market their waste together, increasing their bargaining power. Goodale said his department was “not looking at cooperative procurement yet … but if they’ve come up with a better way to do it, we’re not going turn the other way.”

Some Big Island citizens aren’t waiting for the county to come up with a solution. On Saturday, a new organization called Puna Precious Plastic is holding its first plastic collection drive at Shipman Park in Keaau, accepting “Nos. 1,2,4 and 5 plastics, so long as they are clean and stored in a garbage bag.”

“I started thinking about how I could take plastics from the waste steam and turn them into something useful when the county announced that they wouldn’t be accepting recyclable plastics in their recycling program,” says David Marquis, who organized the event. “I did some looking around on the internet and came across the Precious Plastic website.

Precious Plastic, a non-profit organization, offers ways to turn the plastic waste into something useful.

“They designed a 40-foot container and all the machines that you need to get started and then they have released the blueprints and designs freely for other like-minded individuals,” says Marquis, who hopes to build a solar-powered workshop that uses Precious Plastic’s machinery designs to create such items as “building materials … beams, boards and blocks. Then we can solve a couple of major issues, the housing crisis and the flood of plastic.”

“I have started a monthly subscription support service for people to help me in this project until I can launch the Kickstarter which hopefully will fund the project for the next year,” says Marquis.

But the plan already has its critics, who wonder what emissions the plastics processing would produce and what permits would be required.

One possibility for dealing with recycling is for the neighbor islands to tackle the problem together. Alan McNarie/Civil Beat

Some long-term private recyclers are also accepting items that the county would send to the landfill.  Oddly enough, Business Services Hawaii is still collecting newspaper and office paper mix, including unshredded boxboard/paperboard and #1 and #2 plastics — bottles, jugs, and jars only — all of which it will no longer be collecting for the county.

Business Services Hawaii did not respond to a request for an interview.

County Council’s Committee On Agriculture, Water, Energy and Environmental Management is expected to take up the issue of the recycling program at its meeting Nov. 5.

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