The goal is to increase Hawaii’s recycling redemption rate.

Reverse vending machines that automatically give people money or coupons back for eligible recyclables might be making their way back to Hawaii soon. 

A pilot program to encourage the machines, House Bill 1410, is being discussed as a way to improve the state’s current redemption rate of 60%. The goal is to raise the percentage of eligible containers being redeemed at redemption centers.

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“We need to improve that number,” said Michael Burke, solid waste management coordinator. He said that the machines would improve access and therefore could increase recycling. 

According to Burke, Hawaii had a couple of the machines in the past, and they didn’t have much impact. But Burke and other supporters of this bill think times and technologies have changed, and the machines have a better chance of success this time.

The idea involves a vending machine that works in reverse, collecting rather than dispensing beverage containers. That means people would be able to bring their empty beverage containers to the machine for instant redemption. The machine has a scanner which reads the container’s barcode, ensuring it is eligible. Once the container has been verified and processed, the customer would receive a voucher for either cash or credit for a specific retailer. 

Soda Vending Machines inside the Campbell LIbrary UH West Oahu.
A House Bill would create a reverse vending machine program. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Rep. Nicole Lowen, chair of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Comittee, suggested in a hearing on Feb. 2 that a pilot program should be set up to better gauge if the use of the machines will be successful.

As of now, there are no partnerships with local retailers or organizations in Hawaii to host these machines. Burke said that there have been problems in other states where retail partners limit the containers that can be deposited to that store’s products, which creates confusion and frustration at times with customers.

Lowen told the Department of Health that containers inserted in these machines are not limited to any retail partners’ individual products.

Rep. Andrew Garrett said that the Department of Health has a large sequential fund that is growing due to lack of spending. They are looking to invest that money into programs that help Hawaii communities now. The fund has $55 to $65 million, according to Garrett said. 

“It is cause for concern when a fund like that starts to balloon. What (this) bill does now is to provide grants for these RVMs. This would be a way for the department to invest some of those funds back into the community, to make it easier to recycle.” 

Rep. Garrett said that from what he understands these machines are doing very well in Europe, specifically Norway. Other states in the US that are using these machines now, as a way to encourage recycling.

Oregon, for example, is one of many states in the U.S. that has been implementing these machines. That state included the idea in its Bottle Bill, which works to prevent litter. 

In the Oregon bottle bill, people are required to pay a 10 cent deposit when they purchase any bottle that is 3 liters or less in size. They are then able to return their empty containers and receive a 10 cent refund.

Burke said that two reverse vending machines operated on Maui from 2005 to 2021, in Hana as well as in Kahului. These machines failed because of difficulties and constant need of maintenance. 

He said over time they were worn down by Hawaii’s climate which seems to have an effect on the machines from salt air. The machines were also exposed to acids and sugars which are left at the bottom of containers.

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Plans to ensure that these things don’t happen to future machines are currently being discussed. Burke said that the House committee is currently reviewing the legislature’s draft amendments to the bill and are going to continue to work with other legislators to develop a way to implement a pilot project as successfully as possible.

Garrett said that if this legislation passes, it would be forwarded to the state Department of Health to figure out how it would be implemented. 

“It would depend how much money is appropriated,” he said.

The supporters’ hope is that the pilot program will produce successful results and help to bring more of these machines to the islands.

“I’d be happy to start with one RVM before getting ahead of ourselves,” Burke said. “Our challenge to overcome will be to find partners willing to participate in the pilot program and go from there.”

HB 1410 needs to clear a hearing in the House Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee by Friday or it will die for this session.

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