An estimated 237,000 tons of food — worth more than $1 billion — is wasted every year on Oahu, thrown out by restaurants and individual households. Organic matter is the largest contributor overfilling landfills on Hawaii’s most populous island, making up 36% of the total waste.

As the municipal landfill in Kapolei, Waimanalo Gulch, nears the end of its life in 2028, the city not only needs to find the next dumping ground but also is seeking new ways to reduce the amount of food and other items that are thrown away.

Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency is starting with a small pilot program focused on composting and food waste reduction among mom and pop shops in Chinatown.

“We have quite a few complaints from that community where people are dumpster diving and quite honestly leaving a mess from the food waste or from their dumpsters, locked or unlocked, doesn’t seem to matter,” said Dexter Kishida, the food security and sustainability program manager.

Large dumpsters sit behind the locked gate in Chinatown.
A man sleeps outside the gated, locked and empty trash bins in Chinatown. Lauren Teruya/Civil Beat/2021

Mom and Pop Shops

Large restaurants and cafes occupying 5,000-square-feet or more in Honolulu are required to separate food waste and recyclable materials from other trash. But most of the businesses in Chinatown are smaller operations.

Chinatown Hawaiian Market shop owner Lisa Tang said most small markets and restaurants do not have the time and resources to separate food waste from other trash.

When her produce nears the end of its lifespan, she washes, repackages and sells it at a discounted price, but once it goes bad, it’s thrown into the dumpster in the back of the store.

Deputy director Nicola Hedge announced during a meeting last week that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had awarded the climate office a $90,000 grant to back a composting and food waste reduction program in Chinatown starting in January.

Chinatown Hawaiian Market, a small grocery store in the heart of Chinatown, sells fresh produce and package goods.
Chinatown Hawaiian Market, a small grocery store in the heart of Chinatown, sells fresh produce and packaged goods. Lauren Teruya/Civil Beat/2021

The city also has promised $22,500 in addition to the grant money, and nonprofits Aloha Harvest, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and Zero Waste Oahu will contribute in-kind donations, bringing the overall project cost total to about $200,000.

The project will take two years. Kishida said the first phase will involve research and surveying the community to find which businesses want to participate and which area would be best for the program.

“If we make a functional waste diversion program, that’s a win, win, win for the city, for the organization and for the community as a whole.”  — Dexter Kishida of the city’s climate office

During the second phase, teams will routinely collect food waste material from markets and restaurants in Chinatown and transport it to the composting facility, keeping track of production and future expansion feasibility.

While Kishida explained phase one should only take a few months, the president of the Chinatown Business and Community Association Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock said she’s tired of wasted money on surveys and would rather see real action in the community.

“I’ve been a witness to a lot of surveys and stuff and it’s really a waste of time because there’s not much that surveys actually do,” she said. Referring to food establishments larger than 5,000-square-feet, she said “Chinatown does not have a single one.”

But Kishida said that preliminary research and surveying is necessary to complete the requirements of the USDA grant as well as inform decisions on which area to conduct the program. Due to Chinatown’s mom and pop shop layout, Kishida said it’s a perfect area to test since none of their waste is regulated by the city.

The city’s climate office is on track to finish phase one by March 2022, Kishida said.

Once they have their participant list set, they will work with nonprofit partners to start composting.

Hunger Pains

Officials said the project and other efforts to reduce organic waste would also help Hawaii’s food insecurity problem.

Hawaii ranks second in the nation for the highest projected child food insecurity rates — nearly one in every four children in 2021, according to a Feeding America Analysis.

The disparities are largely blamed on the high cost of food, most of which must be imported. Groceries use up to 22% of the average income in the islands compared with just 13% on the mainland.

A pile of trash sits near a crosswalk and near a "no dumping" sign in Chinatown.
A pile of trash sits near a crosswalk near a “no dumping” sign in Chinatown. Lauren Teruya/Civil Beat/2021

Aloha Harvest director Phil Acosta explained that layoffs due to the Covid-19 pandemic also quickly exposed the vulnerability of people living paycheck to paycheck in the community.

“It just took a disruption in our economy and hospitality industry for folks to end up in a food distribution line, and these are folks that have never done that before,” Acosta said.

Acosta said Aloha Harvest plans to use any food that’s still good for community meals. Anything that’s no longer fit for consumption will be picked up and transported to the Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii “in-vessel” compost container.

The compost container is like a “magic box,” Kishida said. It can take anything from fish to banana peels and create nutrient-rich and profitable composting material for local farmers.

“If we can’t feed it to people, we’d like to divert it from the incinerator and the landfill and go toward composting or animal feed or whatever,” Acosta said.

The success of the project will be measured by the amount of compost produced, reduction of trash pickups needed in the community and demand and sale of the compost product.

If all goes well, Kishida said the state could place food waste biodigester systems across the islands, provide new jobs and use the organic matter to beautify city spaces like botanical gardens and agriculture centers.

“If we make a functional waste diversion program, that’s a win, win, win for the city, for the organization and for the community as a whole,” he said.

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