Henry Gabriel found his life’s calling while elbow-deep in a trash can.

Growing up in Northern California, his mother took him to sports stadiums after the game ended to collect aluminum cans from under the bleachers and trash cans to sell to his local redemption center, earning a quarter for every pound.

“As an 8-year-old making $80 in one season, I’m thinking ‘OK, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life’,” he said.

He translated that passion into a career, and is now recycling program branch chief for the Honolulu Department of Environmental Services. And although he now oversees entire waste management systems, his interest in inspecting individual garbage cans hasn’t waned.

“I go to a neighbor’s house and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh they’re putting polystyrene in the blue bin,’” he said, revealing a disconnect: people want to recycle much more than Honolulu can facilitate.

Workers pull plastic off of conveyor belt at RRR Recycling Services Hawaii.
Workers pull plastic off of a conveyor belt at RRR Recycling Services Hawaii. Only a few kinds of plastic are recyclable on Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Civil Beat’s environmental podcast “Are We Doomed?” has received dozens of questions about why Honolulu doesn’t recycle more goods. The latest episode puts these reader-submitted questions to Gabriel.

The list of what you can recycle on Oahu is short, especially compared to cities in California or Japan: No. 1 and 2 plastics, office paper, newspaper, brown paper bags, glass jars and bottles, metal cans and corrugated cardboard — that’s the thick kind with a “zig zag” between the sheets.

Download a printable guide to recycling in Honolulu here. 

It comes down to economics: recycling is a business and, like other businesses in Hawaii, recycling companies face many higher costs than companies on the mainland.

A large part of the recycling business is watching market prices around the world. A business in California might have the ability to fill a warehouse with bales of recyclable office paper until prices are higher. Real estate prices in Honolulu force companies to clear out warehouse space regularly, Gabriel said.

Storage space is also why Honolulu doesn’t collect plastics Nos. 3 to 7. These plastics don’t have high market prices, so recycling companies in Honolulu would need to stockpile large amounts to offset the cost of collecting, sorting and shipping the plastics.

“We’re also isolated,” Gabriel said. “We can’t put recyclables on a train to consolidate them with a neighboring state.”

Jim Nutter, president of Island Recycling, shares in the desire to recycle more items.

“We do live in a limited world … and eventually we’re going to run out and we need to be able to understand that and do things now for the future,” he said.

But after more than three decades in the industry, he doesn’t think broader recycling options will be available in Honolulu without government action.

His main complaint is with a federal law that requires items shipped between U.S. ports be transported only on ships constructed in the U.S. and owned and crewed by Americans.

“It’s just a lack of competition more than anything else,” he said of the 100-year-old law, known as the Jones Act. “There’s only two shipping lines that come into play.”

And then there’s Honolulu’s relatively high rate of contamination. In the recycling world, contamination doesn’t just mean that the recyclables are dirty, although that is the reason you’re supposed to rinse out your recyclables. It refers to non-recyclables mixed in each “bale” of recyclables.

“These are specialty mills, they don’t convert between one product to another product,” Nutter said. “Cardboard is made back into cardboard. Newspaper made back into newspaper.”

A bale made mostly of corrugated cardboard fetches a high price, while bales of corrugated cardboard with a high proportion of cereal boxes, to-go boxes and pizza boxes will fetch a lower price, or might not even be accepted.

The city’s investment in waste-to-energy is also a disincentive to recycling more items.

“If we were going direct to landfill then chances are there would be a lot more sorting up front to try and divert as much as we can from the landfill,” Gabriel said.

Instead the city has agreed to deliver 800,000 tons of trash a year to H-Power, an incinerator in Honolulu that generates 8% to 10% of the island’s electricity. But the city regularly falls short on the 800,000-ton obligation, and has paid more than $6 million in fees since 2013.

It’s why Liliha resident Cora Yamamoto has been throwing all her paper and cardboard in the trash, even though when she lived in Virginia she happily spent a lot of time sorting out her recyclables.

“I’ve been trying to convince people to put their paper in the gray bin because it makes more and more economic sense,” she said. “Although I’m not sure whether that makes the most ecological sense.”

H-Power emitted more than 3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2018. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that’s the same as driving an average passenger car more than 8 billion miles.

Recycling isn’t without its faults. All those garbage trucks and shipping vessels emit CO2 and other pollutants. And recycling facilities in developing countries that accept American waste often have detrimental effects on the local environment and human health.

“The recycling business and the supply chain are currently making a lot of promises that things will change and things will be different but they made those promises in the 80s,” said Roland Geyer, a professor of industrial ecology at the University of California Santa Barbara. “And things haven’t changed.”

Despite his many complaints about the environmental impacts of recycling, Geyer still encourages people to recycle because converting existing glass, paper, plastic and metal into new products still has a smaller impact than cutting down trees, converting fossil fuels into plastic or mining metals.

“Most people think that recycling is all about diverting waste from landfills,” he said. “But the main environmental benefit of recycling is pollution prevention.”

“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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Offshore is a new immersive storytelling podcast about a Hawaii most tourists never see.

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