This is the first part in a four-part series on trash and recycling, with articles about Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island.

Oahu residents and businesses created 2.1 million tons of waste in 2020. A large amount of that trash goes to the landfill. 

However, about 249,317 tons of that trash is recyclable, including cardboard, newspapers, office paper, aluminum cans, glass, certain types of plastic, metal from automobiles, tires, auto batteries and others. Another 169,933 tons is compostable green waste from the yard.

Living on an island where the limited amount of space is always a concern, there are big questions about the future of our landfills. By recycling, we keep waste out of the landfill. 

On Oahu, trash is also burned and turned into electricity, diverting everything that is combustible — except for the leftover ash — from going into the landfill. 

Burning waste

H-POWER, which stands for Honolulu Program of Waste Energy Recovery, was built in 1990 at the Campbell Industrial Park in Kapolei and is run by Covanta. The waste-to-energy plant processes over 700,000 tons of waste annually, reducing the volume of trash taken to the landfill by 90%.  

Almost everything that isn’t recycled or composted goes to H-POWER, which includes low-grade plastics (numbers 3-7) and low-value paper, such as junk mail, cereal boxes, magazines and telephone books. On Oahu, these items aren’t recycled because they would need to be shipped to distant markets to be made into new products, and they have such a low-value that it wouldn’t make sense to do this, according to Markus Owens, the Department of Environmental Services public information officer, who spoke with Spectrum News Hawaii over email. 

“On a life cycle basis, the cost and environmental impact of shipping low quality recyclables off island are much worse than the benefits of keeping the same material local and recovering the energy from it at H-POWER,” said Owens.

Trucks deliver waste to H-POWER, where shredders open and spread the waste. Magnets are used to extract ferrous metals (tin cans) and non-ferrous metals (aluminum cans, copper, gold, silver and other precious metals) from the waste before it is burned.

“H-POWER is one of the largest metals recyclers on the island, recovering up to 25,000 tons of ferrous and nonferrous metals not captured by curbside or drop-off recycling programs. The metals are marketed. The city currently receives about $3 million annually from the sale of metals,” said Owens. 

Next, screens are used to remove dirt, sand and glass. Shredders are again used to process the remaining waste. The waste is burned in boilers, producing steam. The steam drives turbines that generate electricity, which is sold to Hawaiian Electric Co.; This accounts for 7% of the electricity used on Oahu. The burned trash reduces to ash, which is taken to the landfill.

“Ash is much preferable to trash in a landfill. Trash creates gas, odors, leachate and attracts vectors and pests. Ash doesn’t. Ash in a landfill also sets up like concrete, adding an important engineering feature for stability,” said Owens.

The amount of trash going to the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill in 2007 was about 350,000 tons, and last year it was only 60,000 tons. 

A third boiler was added to H-POWER in 2012, which increased the amount of garbage that can be burned. This boiler can burn any combustible item, including mattresses, tires and medical waste, which used to be diverted to the landfill. In 2015, a sludge receiving station was built, which injects sewage into waste, allowing it to be incinerated. Adding the third boiler and the sludge receiving station has helped Oahu increase the amount of waste diverted from the landfill.

“The third boiler added capacity for 300,000 tons per year of trash,” said Owens. “The sludge receiving station added capacity for about 25,000 tons per year of dewatered cake sludge from the wastewater treatment plants that had been going to the landfill.”

On June 1, the City started a project to recycle ash. The project's aim is to extract rare metals, such as gold, silver, platinum and titanium, as well as aggregate, from the ash for construction applications, according to Owens. 

“It has the potential to divert 60 to 80% of the ash away from the landfill,” said Owens. 

Nicole Chatterson, the executive director of Zero Waste Oahu, is critical of the greenhouse gasses that are emitted while burning trash. 

While H-POWER has air pollution controls on its boilers to control emissions, it still produced 733,517 metric tons of carbon dioxide, 4,954 metric tons of methane and 7,757 metric tons of nitrous oxide in 2020, according to data reported to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Owens responded to the criticism of H-POWER’s emissions by saying the methane gas emitted from a landfill is more than 80 times worse than the carbon dioxide emitted from burning the trash. He also said burning the trash to make energy decreases the use of imported fossil fuels, which are fed to the Kahe Power Plant to make electricity for Oahu. 

Covanta’s contract with the City and County of Honolulu requires that H-POWER receive 800,000 tons of trash every year, which it has never done, so the city must pay a fee. 

Owens said the fee paid to H-POWER is part of a complicated contract and declined to provide a specific number.

“We created an incinerator that actually had too much capacity,” Chatterson said to Spectrum News Hawaii. “It projected more growth than we had … so we got into this situation where we owed waste to the incinerator in order for the business model to work … And what that then does is incentivizes a focus not on reducing waste, but on figuring out how we put things into the incinerator and that is not a net benefit for our community.”  

Instead of burning trash or using coal or oil for energy, Chatterson said we should focus on renewable energy sources. 

H-POWER. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Environmental Services)
H-POWER. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Environmental Services)

How recycling works

On Oahu, more than 83,260 tons of plastic, aluminum, glass, paper, cardboard and other materials and 169,933 tons of green waste were recycled in 2020. 

About 160,000 homes on Oahu have curbside recycling, which is part of the three-cart system, while 20,000 homes only have trash pick-up. 

The three-cart system includes the gray bin for trash, the green bin for green waste and the blue bin for recyclables.

The locations without the three-cart system are in neighborhoods, like Tantalus, that are not accessible by the automated collection truck. For these households, the closest recycling center can be found on the city’s website.

Most apartment buildings have private trash and recycling services contracted by a property manager.

The green bin is where all yard trimmings, leaves, grass clippings and Christmas trees without tinsel or flocking go. The green waste should be loose in the bin without a trash bag. 

Green waste can also be taken to drop-off centers. There are six convenience centers and three transfer stations around the island, which accept refuse and green waste. Green waste is also accepted at Hawaiian Earth Recycling, a composting facility, in Wahiawa. 

Green waste is composted on Oahu to make soil products. Mulch and compost is sold under the name Menehune Magic in garden shops across the island or can be bought directly from Hawaiian Earth Recycling. 

The blue bin is where flattened corrugated cardboard, white and color office paper, newspapers, brown paper bags, plastic with codes 1 and 2, metal cans, glass bottles and jars go. These recyclables should be cleaned and rinsed when appropriate, with all lids or caps removed. The recyclables go directly into the blue bin without a trash bag.

For those with more items to get rid of, two additional bins of any color may be requested. To receive a second blue bin or a larger one, households must be compacting their recyclables, not adding contaminants and not using bags.

Owens said contamination is a big concern. A 2016 study conducted by the Cascadia Consulting Group for the City and County of Honolulu found that across the island between 12 to 25% of collected material is contaminated. Waialua and Waianae had the highest contamination rates.

The blue bin program started in 2007 and it allows many materials — paper, plastic, aluminum, and so on — to be thrown together. This is known as single-stream recycling. 

Since 2007, the City and County of Honolulu has contracted RRR Services Hawaii to receive all the recyclables collected from the blue bin. RRR Services uses automated machines and employees to sort the recyclables. 

Owens said the City pays a contractual price per ton to have the blue cart sorted, baled and recycled, but declined to answer specific questions about how much it costs.

Spectrum News also reached out to RRR Services for an interview several times, but did not receive a response. 

All of the recyclables collected in the blue bin are sold by RRR Services to the mainland or foreign countries. The company sells glass to manufacturers in the United States. Aluminum is sold to manufacturers in Korea and the U.S. Plastics #1 and #2 are sold to markets in Indonesia and Malaysia. The U.S. Fiber products, such as corrugated cardboard, newspaper and office paper, are sold to manufacturers in Taiwan, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Thailand and Korea.

Hawaii, like many places in the U.S., used to sell its recyclables to China to process, but there was too much contamination in the recyclables being imported. In 2017, China limited the types of recyclable commodities it would accept and restricted the amount of contamination allowed in the bales of plastic and mixed paper sent to the country. 

Kristine Kubat, the president of Recycle Hawaii, a Hawaii Island nonprofit, told Spectrum News Hawaii that there wouldn’t be so much contamination and recyclables would have a higher value if people were still asked to sort them. 

“Why would you take a system in which people as volunteers are sorting the materials and create one where they throw it together, then you have to pay somebody else to sort it? It makes no sense,” said Kubat.

Instead of shipping recyclables to foreign markets, the City could build a recycling plant. Owens said this would be difficult because land is expansive and there are not enough recyclables to justify building a recycling manufacturing plant. Owens declined to answer a question about how many recyclables would be needed for the City to build its own recycling plant. 

The HI5 program 

The HI5 program allows for cans and bottles with the HI5 label to be exchanged for 5 cents. Beverage containers must be 2 liters or smaller and made of glass, plastic or aluminum. The Hawaii Department of Health runs the program, which exists on all the islands. 

The program works by having all companies that manufacture or distribute eligible containers pay the DOH a 1-cent container fee and 5-cent redemption fee for each container. The customer is charged these fees when they purchase a beverage in an eligible container.  

The 5-cent redemption fee is returned to the customer when they redeem their container, and the 1-cent container fee funds redemption centers and the DOH for managing the program.

“The HI5 program was established in 2002, and helps to protect the environment by incentivizing recycling,” Kaitlin Arita-Chang, the DOH’s acting communications director, said in an email to Spectrum News Hawaii. 

The 5-cent fee provides an incentive to bring the bottle container to a redemption center. Redemption centers are located throughout the island. The containers must be empty of liquid and other debris, and must be separated by type: glass, plastic, aluminum and bi-metal. Flattening aluminum and plastic containers is encouraged to save space. 

HI5 containers placed in the blue bin will not get refunded. The 2016 study conducted by the Cascadia Consulting Group for the City and County of Honolulu found about 5% of curbside recycling placed in the blue bins are HI5 recyclables. Some containers are also tossed into the trash.

“If the bottle is thrown away with the trash, the state keeps the money in a special fund to support the program,” said Owens.

Between July 2021 to June 2022, more than 1 billion containers were manufactured or imported into the state, and of those containers, 612 million were recycled. This is almost a 60% redemption rate. Over the past couple of years, about two-thirds of all deposit containers were recycled each year. While 10 million more containers were recycled this past year, the redemption rate is lower because 50 million more containers were imported into the state (from about 950 million to over 1 billion containers). 

As for where the containers end up, most are shipped to the West Coast and some to Asia to be processed. 

“Most of the material collected by our local recyclers is shipped to the West Coast to be processed there, or forwarded to processors elsewhere in the country. Some material is shipped internationally, particularly South Korea or Southeast Asia, however that amount has significantly decreased due to changes in international shipping regulations and COVID-19 shipping issues,” said Arita-Chang. 

Before recycling, reduce and reuse

While recycling is useful, Chatterson said that she thinks we rely on it too much and should focus more on reducing consumption. 

She said many products are not designed to be recycled. For example, with a plastic bottle, the bottle, cap and label are all made of different types of plastic. 

“I would love to see the City and County and the State continue to pursue waste reduction as the primary way to think about solving our recycling crisis,” said Chatterson. “There's just too much stuff, and it is magical thinking to pretend we're gonna find recycling outlets for all of it.”

To keep more trash out of the landfill, Oahu has banned plastic bags and disposable food ware

“It reduces the amount of non-degradable and non-recyclable waste entering the waste stream, which is consistent with the City’s Integrated Waste Solid Management Plan and reduces marine litter,” said Owens about the bans. 

In 2015, Oahu banned plastic bags. The ban prohibits grocery stores from offering plastic or other non-recyclable bags to customers. 

The disposable food ware ordinance went into effect at the beginning of this year and it restricts the use and sale of polystyrene foam food ware, disposable plastic food ware and disposable plastic service ware. There are some exceptions, such as the use of polystyrene foam food ware for the use of raw meat, catered food and others. 

Chatterson said that she thinks these bans are a step in the right direction, but wished there weren’t so many exceptions allowed in the laws. 

Most businesses comply with the plastic bag ban and the disposable food ware ordinance, according to Owens. 

For those that don’t comply, the Department of Environmental Services would first issue a Notice of Violation with a deadline and provide education. If a business was still not compliant, the agency would elevate it to a Notice of Order, which includes a fine. The fine for not complying with the plastic bag or disposable food ware ban is $100 per day and up to $1,000 for repeat offenders.   

Chatterson encouraged individuals to become involved in policy making that motivates companies to create less wasteful systems. 

“I think influencing packaging and product design, so that it's much easier to recycle … would set us up to have healthier global recycling systems,” Chatterson added.

She also said people could “vote with their dollars” by supporting zero waste businesses that allow customers to refill products, such as Onekea Bros., Protea Zero Waste, R Planet, Keep It Simple and Kokua Hawaii Foundation’s general store in Haleiwa. 

The future of the landfill

This past year, 214,252 tons of waste was sent to Oahu’s Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill, a municipal solid waste landfill in Kapolei that was started in 1987, which is a record low, according to Owens. 

The City and County of Honolulu’s website says that about 72% of the waste sent to the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill is ash and residue from H-POWER.  

The city estimates that the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill could be used for another 20 years. However, the State Land Use Commission said in 2019 that the city must identify an alternative landfill by the end of 2022 and close the WGSL by March 2, 2028. 

In 2017, a report put together by a consulting group deemed 11 sites as potential locations for the future landfill. However, Act 73, a state law approved in 2020, that says landfills can’t be in conservation zones or within a half-mile of a residential, school or hospital, eliminated those potential sites. Now, the City is evaluating potential new locations. 

Owens said a new landfill site will still be selected by the end of the year. 

After the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill is closed, the City is required to conduct post-closure care and monitoring of groundwater, stormwater, leachate and landfill gas for 30 years. 

Construction and demolition waste is sent to the PVT landfill in Nanakuli. 

Albert Shigemura, the president of the privately owned PVT Landfill, told Spectrum News Hawaii that they were one of the island’s major recyclers until 2020, recycling 417,854 tons of construction and demolition material that year. However, Shigemura said they stopped recycling after the PVT landfill was unable to expand their site because of Act 73.

“Because of this halt to our expansion, I'm limited to what I can do,” said Shigemura. “So we actually stopped recycling not too long after the law was passed.”

In order to expand the life of the PVT Landfill, Shigemura said he no longer accepts items that are bulky, like concrete with rebar, or take up a lot of airspace, like asbestos.

Shigemura said the PVT Landfill will probably fill up in about eight years. 

Michelle Broder Van Dyke covers the Hawaiian Islands for Spectrum News Hawaii.