Scrapped Incinerator, Now What?

(From our print edition)

,by Alan McNarie

Late last month, Mayor Billy Kenoi’s administration withdrew its Request for Proposals for a garbage-to-energy plant. Department of Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd told the Chronicle that Kenoi didn’t intend to revisit his decision during his term in office. But the question remains: what to do with all that garbage?
In killing the incinerator, the administration cited the decreasing cost of oil, which has dropped from over $100 per barrel to less than $50 in recent months. It also noted the uncertainty about the future of the Hawaii Electric Light Company, which may be bought out by a Florida corporation named NextEra Energy. The administration did not cite the heavy grassroots opposition that had gathered against the proposal, spawning Web sites, Facebook pages and at least two online petitions that had gathered over 2,000 signatures. Opponents criticized the project’s estimated $100 million price tag and its proposed location on Hawaiian Homelands in Keaukaha. They also argued that the county simply didn’t produce enough garbage for the plant to operate economically.
“Since the County does not produce enough garbage to meet its quota, it will be required to pay off the incinerator company for the garbage it cannot produce—to [the] tune of millions of dollars per year!” contended one petition, in part.
According to Councilmember Margaret Wille, that drain could have been compounded by the county’s contract with Waste Management, Inc., which requires the county to pay for a minimum tonnage of garbage tipped per day at West Hawaii’s Pu`uanahulu Landfill, whether it generates that much trash or not. The incinerator, Wille told the Chronicle, would have made “two things that we’re on the hook for forever.”
The incinerator announcement came in the wake of headlines, only days before, that the county had cancelled $100,000 contract with the nonprofit Recycle Hawaii to conduct recycling education. County officials denied allegations that the cancellation was a retaliation against incinerator opponents; the administration claimed it simply had other uses for the money. Leithead-Todd told the Chronicle that her department had experienced some “expenditures that were not in our budget,” for instance, including the need to haul green waste from certain areas of the island to Hilo in order to avoid contaminating coffee-growing regions with an invasive beetle, and the need to evacuate, then re-occupy, Pahoa’s transfer station/recycling center because of nearby lava. While the county hoped to recoup some of its volcano-related expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she said, “I can’t count on getting that money from FEMA this year.”
Buklarewicz said the county had renewed Recycle Hawaii’s contract to run the County’s recycling centers for another year.
With the incinerator dead and the county’s Hilo landfill years overdue to close—although the County also hopes the federal Environmental Protection Agency will grant permission to extend the landfill’s life yet again by steepening the slopes allowed for the landfill’s sides—it still appears that some sort of recycling/waste diversion program will be vital to the county’s future. Both Buklarewicz and Wille are pushing for an educational component in that program. Buklarewicz hopes to renegotiate a contract, possibly with an emphasis on zero-waste school programs similar to one already underway at Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy in Waimea, where garbage from the cafeteria, for example, is turned into compost for gardening. Wille has written a resolution urging the Mayor to issue a new request for proposals for one or more recycling education contracts. As of the deadline for this article, that resolution was scheduled to receive its first hearing on February 17.
“In my opinion, the zero waste programs that fail are the ones that don’t have a strong education component,” Wille believes.
She’s also introducing a “whole package” of waste reduction bills at the Council on March 3. Within reasonable transition periods, she hopes to get all plastic foam and green waste diverted from the landfill to recycled uses. Other bills would require contractors to provide recycling services and give the Director of Environmental Management more leeway to divert waste from the Hilo Landfill to the Kona side—something now allowed only in emergencies, but which Wille believes should be possible in other circumstances, such as to avoid penalty fees.
“I don’t want to be paying penalties where if we brought another seven tons over there, there wouldn’t be penalties,” she contends.
Leithead-Todd is also working on new diversion measures, including a “multi-year contract to do composting,” which may include using a portable tub grinder that could be moved around to various locations to grind up the mulch and compost in place, instead of trucking it to a composting center. The county will also be establishing another geen waste mulching facility in May at the Waimea Transfer station. It will pay for these new green waste services, in part, with a new $21.25 per ton tipping fee that will begin on March 1 for green waste from commercial operators at the Hilo and Pu‘uanahulu landfills which will be the only places that accept commercial loads of greenwaste, though residents can continue to drop off non-commercial greenwaste for free at Hilo, Pu‘uanahulu, Kealakehe, Ke’ei, Puak?, P?hoa and Kea‘au. The county currently pays more than $1.6 million a year to recycle green waste—organic matter such as cut grass and tree branches—into mulch.
Another huge component of the county’s waste stream is consumer packaging: all those brightly colored, advertising-covered boxes, cartons, cans, bottles, bags and wrappers that fill retail shelves and cross fast-food counters.
Bularewicz notes that over the years, county diversion programs have been pulling a greater and greater variety of materials from that waste stream. But he also acknowledges that most of that material now goes to China for reprocessing—burning fuel and aborting potential U.S. jobs. Wille talks about providing “incentives” and “disincentives” such as tax breaks and fees to make companies take responsibility for the costs of their packaging. Some big companies, such as Wal-Mart, are already taking back their cardboard shipping boxes—but not consumer packaging. Others, such as McDonalds, are switching from plastic packaging to biodegradable paper—McDonalds has even started using 100 percent recycled paper napkins. But many local drive-ins are still passing out plastic foam. Hawai’i’s HI-5 program and bag ban have made significant inroads in the waste stream—but persuading mainstream companies to convert to bulk bins, such as local natural food stores use, and reusable containers like the glass bottles that local soda companies once distributed seems a more distant goal.
But perhaps a goal worth pursuing. Getting garbage out of the waste stream could be easier if less garbage was coming in.

4 replies
  1. Tom Young says:

    Great article. How far the Big Island has come over the past 10 years! “In my opinion, the zero waste programs that fail are the ones that don’t have a strong education component,” Wille believes. I concur.

    Further, we can’t let the fate of our environment ride on what the utility companies will do in the future; I don’t understand why HELCO is even part of the equation.

    Waste Management, Inc., could capitalize on Hawaii’s environmental future if it was willing to embrace new methods of waste management.

  2. Sara Steiner
    Sara Steiner says:

    It seems like the county has taken monies from all sorts of funds to pay for the lava emergency. Think of all the counterfeit federal reserve notes that are gonna need be printed to cover these questionable (some of them) expenditures. Think of how in debt we are. Oh, wait, we don’t know how much they’ve even spent yet and it’s not even the barely the beginning.

  3. Hazen Komraus
    Hazen Komraus says:

    I’d love to know more about where our recycling ends up. “China” is a vague answer, i worry that OUR recycling is just becoming someone else’s landfill.

    As a builder i like the idea of recycling for contractors. It’s criminal the waste that i see on some jobsites. Wood cutoffs (which can be minimized) can easily be chipped or burned. Drywall scrap and mud is mainly paper and gypsum works great as weed mat and a soil conditioner. I believe that could be recycled into the clean green mulch and improve it. A great first step would be removing those ridiculous plastic Hi-Bor tags stapled on the end of each board. I’ve never heard of counterfeit Hi-Bor boards! Just put a lumber stamp on the end! Recycling cardboard, paper, and plastic sheeting is easy. Remodel and demolition waste is the hardest and most expensive.

    I think its criminal that the local restaraunts still use styrofoam, styrofoam should be made illegal in the state. No plates either, cookouts, luas, and parties can do fine with paper plates, reusable plates, or heaven forbid the traditional and 100% compostable ti and banana leaves. Affordable compostable cups, silverware, and bowls are readily available.

    I’d love to see glass bottle reuse come back. Of course without local soft drinks and beers that won’t matter. I never heard of any problems in the past when glas was re-used. In Mexico you buy big glass bottles and they cost as much as the beer. If you bring back your bottles they don’t charge you for the next ones. AND this makes the beer cheaper.

  4. Delia
    Delia says:

    styrofoam: sharing educational info + alternative products should cause food vendors to do the right thing. You’d think there would be a stigma to use styrofoam on the islands, which I’d rather see happen than passing (or waiting for) more laws.

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