While Honolulu’s Opala website provides an extensive list of where to drop off specific items for disposal, what it doesn’t cover is where those items ultimately end up.

“I don’t know if what I recycle … is ending up in Malaysia or something where it’s being burned and making people sick,” said Lois Crozer, who lives in Lanikai. “I just want to make sure what we’re doing is pono.”

She’s one of a handful of readers who asked Civil Beat to explain how recycling works in Hawaii and Episode 3 of our podcast, “Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Question,” dives into the world of reuse.

A “bale” of crushed cans can weigh anywhere between 700 and 900 pounds. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

Last year the City and County of Honolulu collected over 100,000 tons of paper, aluminum, glass and plastic for recycling. However, where those recyclables are sent is considered “confidential business information,” according to the state Department of Health.

“DOH verifies that the materials go to appropriate end-users, but we do not maintain a database with this information,” wrote a DOH spokeswoman in an email, a sentiment mirrored by the City and County of Honolulu. Maui County did not respond to an information request.

Some counties were more willing to provide specifics. Hawaii County said its paper, cardboard and scrap metal is shipped to “various Asian Countries” and its plastic and aluminum ends up on the mainland. Kauai County sells its mixed paper and cardboard to companies in Taiwan and its plastic and aluminum to California companies.

Some collected materials stay on island. Concrete, asphalt and roadway foundations are often reused in new building projects, and a composting company on Oahu turns hundreds of thousands of tons of green waste a year into fertile soil. But most consumer recyclables like metal, plastic, paper and glass don’t stay in Hawaii for long: they’re sent somewhere else in the world.

Bruce Iverson oversees marketing and development for Reynolds Recycling, the company that processes more plastics than any other in the state. The company collects a variety of recyclables from Oahu, Maui and Kauai and their Sand Island facility compresses cans, metal and plastic into huge cubes and ships them off island.

But what Iverson doesn’t do is send recyclables to a landfill or H-Power to be burned for electricity.

“Whenever I hear that, I’m always shocked,” he said. “Our business relies on turning around and selling the material to pay for our costs.”

He also doubts that international companies are purchasing Hawaii’s recyclables just to place them in a landfill or burn them because “that wouldn’t make a lot of sense.”

Plastic bottles are loaded onto a conveyer belt, then crushed into giant cubes before they’re shipped off island. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

Chinese companies used to be the biggest buyer of recyclables worldwide, but since China enacted new restrictions last year Iverson has been looking for new business partners.

“We’ve even recently sent some things to Saudi Arabia,” he said, and companies in some Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam buy Hi-5 plastics from Hawaii.

Glass and aluminum are big business for Iverson because they can be recycled indefinitely. Most of the aluminum that comes through his facility will end up at smelters in Alabama or Tennessee.

But if there’s no buyer for a recyclable, there’s little incentive for a city or company to continue collecting them. Hawaii County recently announced it would no longer collect plastic or paper for this reason.

“People here are really upset about the changes, they feel like they are losing the ability to be green,” said Danielle Burger, with the nonprofit Recycle Hawaii.

Burger has been fending off a ton angry of emails and phone calls since the change but, surprisingly for someone who has the word “recycle” in her official title, she’s embraced the cutbacks.

“In fact I’m kind of excited because instead of talking about which specific instances of plastic and paper can be recycled, we’re going to start talking about real issues,” she said. “Why do we feel like we need to buy so much stuff and does it really need to be wrapped in plastic?”

She advises people to think about where an item will ultimately end up before bringing it into their home. And Yale Professor Marian Chertow said our entire economy could benefit if business owners and the government used that simple exercise.

“I think it would be really helpful to not think about what can we recover out of the waste material but ask the question ‘how could we keep these materials from becoming waste in the first place?’” she said.

Honolulu’s population, both resident and visitor, is large enough to generate a huge amount of waste. But Chertow said we’re not quite big enough for recycling facilities to make economic sense.

The deputy director of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services agrees.

“You have to have a market for the end product and we just don’t have the market or… even adequate supply,” Timothy Houghton said.

Honolulu officials discussed the possibility of a facility on Oahu to recycle 10,000 tons per year of glass bottles and jars into a marketable product, but the bid was closed.

“It’s a question of how much it’s going to cost for a vendor to remanufacture that material into something that’s potentially usable and whether that’s ultimately a good investment of the public’s money,” he said.

Like Chertow and Burger, Houghton said reducing potential waste is the most effective way to manage it. But stressing the reduce and reuse in “reduce, reuse, recycle” isn’t the message many Hawaii residents want to hear.

“We’re not even sure that recycling is the best way to go,” he said, noting that collecting, cleaning, shipping and repurposing recyclables produces a large amount of CO2.

Which is why Civil Beat will investigate the carbon impact of shipping all those recyclables off island versus burning them in H-Power in the next episode of “Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions.

“Are We Doomed And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions
Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions

What the heck is reef-safe sunscreen? Where does all the trash go? Why is it so hot? Join Civil Beat as we tackle your questions about Hawaii's environment. Smart. Irreverent. Never boring. This is not your grandma's science podcast.

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