Oahu generates nearly 4.4 billion pounds of solid waste annually from residential, commercial and industrial sources, and taxpayers spend millions of dollars each year dealing with it.

It’s shipped off island, burnt for energy, sorted and recycled to varying degrees. A visit to the processing facilities this summer revealed how it all works — and the many ways that people are doing it wrong, only adding to the public’s cost.

Meanwhile, the city’s current landfill is rapidly reaching capacity, and city officials are desperately searching for a spot by the end of this year to build a new one, an estimated $210 million project. That makes any improvements on the consumer end — like making sure the right recyclables end up in the right can — all the more important, as it can help divert some of the waste and buy more time.

RRR Recycling GIF
The RRR facility in Kapolei processes an average of 400,000 pounds of material every day. Up to 7% is considered contaminated and sent to H-POWER. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

The island’s infrastructure provides four pathways for waste — three of which are utilized by 160,000 single-family homes through the city’s curbside collection program, though there are plans to include 20,000 more that are still on a trash-only route.

Trash in the gray cart is burned at H-POWER, the island’s waste-to-energy power plant. Recycling in the blue cart is sorted at Reduce Reuse Recyclers Services, then shipped. Green waste such as yard trimmings in the green cart are composted at Hawaiian Earth Recycling. And non-combustible construction and demolition debris are buried in the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill.

The future of the 200-acre municipal landfill on the Westside remains unclear after an advisory committee rejected possible site locations. H-POWER and recycling facilities have helped stall the landfill from reaching capacity, but experts say more could be done.

Last month, Civil Beat joined members of 4ocean, Hawaii Pacific University and SEED, a local environmental nonprofit, on an islandwide tour of Oahu’s solid waste systems to learn more. Here are the primary takeaways.

Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill Stock
H-POWER receives an average of about 4 million pounds of waste a day. After the trash is combusted, about 20 truckloads of ash a day go to the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Recycling Abroad

Oahu launched the blue cart program in 2007 and contracted RRR, a materials recovery facility in Kapolei that sorts and packs recycling materials to be sold.

Manasseh Santos, the RRR operations manager, said in the last 14 years, he has found everything from car parts to garden hoses and basketballs in the recycling collection.

“I have to scold my neighbors all the time,” Santos said. “I walk out of the house and I’ll see them put stuff in the blue bin just because their trash bin is full.”

In May 2022, it cost the city $127 to process 1 ton of mixed recyclables, including paper, aluminum, plastic and glass, through the curbside blue cart program — a number that fluctuates with the recycling market. On average, Santos said RRR processes about 400,000 pounds of material each day.

RRR Recycling Cans
RRR ships out an average of 10 containers that have 220 of these bales, each of which weighs 1,000-1,200 pounds. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

RRR currently accepts corrugated cardboard, newspaper, office paper, paper bags, aluminum, steel, bi-metal, glass containers, and of the seven types of plastic that exist, only two are eligible.

What most people don’t understand, is that while these items are accepted here — nothing is recycled on island. Everything is shipped off to buyers around the world. And while there are several reasons why Honolulu doesn’t accept more recycling or have its own recycling plant like other states on the mainland, the main reason is the lack of space.

But even with more recycling plants, there’s still a lot of waste ending up in landfills. Earlier this year, two environmental groups, Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup, published a report that says of the 40 million tons of plastic waste from the U.S. in 2021, 85% went to landfills, 10% was incinerated, and only about 5% was recycled.

Before China’s “National Sword” policy in January 2018 banned the import of most plastics, Oahu was shipping most of its recyclables to China. Since then, the island has started shipping to several other countries, such as Korea, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

RRR Recycling Stock
Piles of unsold and discolored waste at RRR that has been left in the sun for months. When there’s no buyers, there’s nowhere for the waste to go. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Jim Puckett, founder and executive director of the Basel Action Network, has fought the practice of exporting waste to developing countries, which already struggle to manage their own waste streams and face the toxic effects of plastic pollution.

“If you followed the waste from Hawaii, and actually went to Malaysia and scrutinized the facility, I think you would be extremely alarmed at how bad it really is,” he said.

Farhan Nasa, the project coordinator for the Malaysia Stop Waste Trade Coalition, which is made up of a number of environmental groups committed to public awareness and improving waste trade policies, said their local facilities are already overwhelmed with their own waste, and do not have the infrastructure to take on foreign imports.

“The recycling problem is a global issue, but less developed countries such as mine end up on the receiving end of the toxic effects of plastic pollution brought by the indifference and callous disregard by developed countries such as the U.S. — by choosing to dump their waste on us,” Nasa said.

Malaysia Stop Waste Trade Coalition
Local residents informed the Malaysia Stop Waste Trade Coalition that waste was being dumped on a roadside in Shah Alam — bales that were packed and shipped from the U.S. and several other countries. Courtesy: Malaysia Stop Waste Trade Coalition

Currently, Santos said Oahu’s aluminum is shipped to Los Angeles, while the rest of the collected blue-cart items travel to Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. RRR ships out an average of 10 containers every day, each loaded with 220 bales of trash, weighing roughly 1,200 pounds apiece.

Besides being better educated about what RRR accepts, Santos said he wishes people would take the lids and caps off of their bottles, and stop putting their recycling in bags.

In a perfect world, Santos said people would dump their items directly in the blue cart — a simple step that would save his workers from ripping open each bag and hours of sorting. He also added that plastic bags tend to get caught in the chains of the machines which often need to be replaced.

The two types of plastic that RRR does take are polyethylene terephthalate, which is used to make items such as beverage and condiment bottles, and high-density polyethylene, which is used for items such as milk cartons and detergent bottles.

RRR Recycling Stock Plastic Bottles
A worker at the RRR facility moves plastic bottles, which will be packed into bales and shipped off island. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Everything else that is tossed in the blue cart that doesn’t belong there, such as plastic wrap, straws, or any recyclable items that weren’t rinsed out are all deemed contaminated, and passed on to H-POWER for incineration.

In fiscal year 2022, RRR hauled 7,661 tons of non-recyclable or contaminated material to H-POWER, averaging four to five loads a day, according to Markus Owens, spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Services. If less material was contaminated or non-recyclable, that would mean fewer trips to the incinerator and less wasted time.

From Trash To Ash

While other islands mostly rely on landfills, Oahu has the option of burning its trash for energy.

As a city owned and operated facility that has been running since 1990, the power plant receives waste from the gray carts, incinerates it, and produces up to 10% of Oahu’s electricity — one ton of trash generates on average 535 kwh of electricity exported to the HECO grid.

The city’s current contract runs until August 2032, and is part of a public-private partnership with Covanta Honolulu Resource Recovery Venture.

Owens said it was determined to be in the city’s best interest to extend the contract when it did so a decade ago, and that it prevented excessive costs from contractors during a transition period while maintaining regulatory compliance and the existing workforce.

RRR Recycling Stock
Plastic bags that are sent to RRR are packed and dropped off at H-POWER for incineration. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

H-POWER has an annual revenue of $70 million from Hawaiian Electric Company, $52 million in fees based on the amount of waste received, and $3 million through metal recycling. Covanta shares the revenue generated from the electricity that it produces with the city.

In its contract, the city agreed to provide a guaranteed amount of 800,000 tons of trash, based on the waste stream and the 20-year projections during extension negotiations in 2008.

The grapple crane operator is moving waste away from the tipping area to make room for more unloading at H-POWER. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

But Honolulu has struggled to meet this target, which costs taxpayers about $12 for each ton the city falls short.

Prior to the addition of the third boiler at H-POWER, the city was required to provide the guaranteed amount of 561,000 tons in solid waste, at which point Oahu was still 382,840 tons short of the agreed upon amount, and paid over $6.2 million for lost electrical revenue, at around $16 per ton.

After the addition of the third boiler, the economic recession hit in 2009 and reduced the waste stream by approximately 20%. The shortfalls have ranged from 50,000 tons to 121,000 tons, and it is estimated that the lost electrical energy revenues by H-POWER will continue to cost the city over $1 million a year.

Without the incinerator, which reduces the volume of trash by about 90%, the landfill would reach capacity in four years, according to Owens. The 300 to 400 trucks of trash, which weigh about 4 million pounds, that are incinerated each day become 20 to 25 trucks of ash that go to the landfill, and seven metal loads go to recyclers such as Schnitzer Steel and Island Recycling.

Recently, the city awarded a contract to Covanta for the reuse of ash from H-POWER. The goal is to treat and screen the ash while recovering metals and materials for construction, Owens said. He added that the project may potentially divert 60-80% of the ash from the landfill. A notice to proceed for the first phase — planning, permitting and design — was issued in June.

While trash in a landfill generates odor, gas and leachate while attracting birds, rats and insects, ash is stable and sets up like concrete. The ash that is put in the landfill is isolated from the environment, sampled quarterly and has no impact on the soil, according to Owens.

Though recovering energy from trash avoids the import of one barrel of fuel oil for every 2,000 pounds of trash, environmental advocates like Ray Aivazian, founder of SEED, and Kahi Pacarro, director of Parley for the Oceans Hawaii, say burning our waste is not the answer.

Pacarro equated the relationship the city has with H-POWER to “feeding the beast,” noting the extra charges incurred for not providing enough waste.

“We’re paying for it in tax dollars,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. We should be starving the beast.”

H-POWER is a city-owned facility in Kapolei that has been in operation since 1990, but environmentalists say we shouldn’t rely so heavily on the waste-to-energy facility. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Other than tax dollars, we may also be paying for it through the air we breathe. In 2020, H-POWER emitted 733,517 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — one of the main reasons that the United Nations has recommended against classifying electricity from trash incinerators as renewable or green energy.

No one wants to be surrounded by landfills, Aivazian said, but it shouldn’t be an either-or situation.

“Instead of encouraging people to consume and produce more waste to fill a quota, we should be promoting plans to create material recycling facilities on island,” Aivazian said. “With us having our own facilities in Hawaii we will create new jobs, cut back on the amount of material we are importing, and significantly reduce our CO2 footprint.”

Car Engines Are Not Green Waste

Santos at RRR and Marvin Min, senior vice president of Hawaiian Earth, are both paying employees to sort through contaminated waste.

Established in 1993, Hawaiian Earth is the largest producer of compost in the state, and has since diverted over 2 million tons of green waste.

As part of the three-cart program, the city pays Hawaiian Earth $866,990 a year to collect and process green waste. Annually, it collects 140,000 tons of green waste from the three-cart curbside collection program, which take about a year to break down into 70,000 tons of soil, mulch and erosion control products.

Hawaiian Earth Recycling Stock Cattle Egrets
Since opening, Hawaiian Earth has diverted 2 million tons of green waste, from which they have produced a number of different products, including potting mix, screened soil, and a lawn and garden blend. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

“If only we could get people to stop throwing their dog waste bags into the green bin,” Min said, adding that amongst other items that don’t belong there, they have found dead animals and even car engines in the green cart.

Hawaiian Earth has four employees who are responsible for picking out contamination but inevitably can’t find it all, which explains why some farmers have been finding plastic in compost and soil made from the island’s green waste. In all, Min said each month about 20 tons of collected green waste is deemed contaminated and hauled off to H-POWER.

The company is expected to help the island divert even more of its waste beginning in 2024 when the city rolls out a designated bin for food waste that will be composted at Hawaiian Earth. Min said this project, which the city announced in June, has been a decade in the making.

Hawaiian Earth Recycling GIF
Andrelynn Sacro, who goes by “Auntie,” has been with Hawaiian Earth Recycling since 2016, and is one of four workers who are responsible for sorting through contaminated waste. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Nonprofit organizations have also started offering composting solutions for the community. In May, the state Department of Health gave Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and its partners approval to launch its Earth Flow composting system that will allow anyone with a subscription to bring in food scraps and buy the soil the company produces from it.

Based on the city’s 2017 waste composition study, over 20% of residential waste collected from the gray cart is food waste, presenting another significant way to lessen the load on the landfill, and in turn taxpayers.

“Moving forward, I think we can make a positive impact on our environment, as long as we educate our consumers on how to do the right thing,” Min said.

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