Green Career Resources

Amid other ambitious targets, closing the loop remains elusive in Hawaii

A wooden trunk awash on a Kauai shore
ShutterstockJohn Earl Webb
Surrounded by ocean, finding treasure in trash is no easy endeavor.

Framed by a momentum towards energy independence and ambitious sustainability targets at the VERGE Hawaii conference, a group of key stakeholders gathered on Oahu last week to discuss Honolulu’s waste management system. An entwined yet uniquely thorny thread in the state’s resilience narrative, Hawaii’s solid waste industry is a complex web of conflicting priorities. It could serve as a cautionary tale against misaligned incentives, but also a model for how to close the loop on the island’s waste streams.

As one of earth’s most remote land-masses, Hawaii leads the United States with an ambitious constellation of state-sponsored sustainability targets. The islands are working to achieve their mandate of 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent clean ground transportation and a recently added pledge to achieve carbon neutrality, all by 2045. State officials and businesses are acutely aware of Hawaii’s resource constraints, and the state is working to decrease its reliance on the shipments of oil and other fossil-fuel resources that have powered the island for decades.

Honolulu sends most of its municipal solid waste (MSW) to the city’s H-POWER waste-to-energy facility, which converts solid waste into electricity, supplying 7 to 10 percent of Oahu’s power at any given moment and significantly contributing to Hawaii’s renewable electricity portfolio. In 2015, 92 percent of all municipal solid waste on Oahu was burned at the facility. The remaining 8 percent of ash byproduct from MSW and H-POWER is sent to the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, which will reach capacity in 2038, according to a recent assessment (PDF).

When it comes to recycling on Oahu, "away" is a journey of thousands of miles by ship to the port of Oakland, where the island’s recyclables are processed and shipped to China or Southeast Asia. But as global markets for buying and selling recyclables crumble due in large part to China’s new import policies, Honolulu is pushing to divert its plastic bottles and paper products to the H-POWER facility along with the rest of its solid waste, and overturn the city’s recycling mandate in the process.

"At the risk of getting shot, I don’t want to recycle on the island. It does not make financial or economic sense," Lori Kahikina, Honolulu’s director of the Department of Environmental Services, said. "I know you feel good when you put your recyclables in the blue bin, but people don’t understand that we don’t have a facility here to process the recycled materials, so everything is shipped to the mainland. We’re kind of stuck."

Not only is shipping recyclables across the Pacific financially and environmentally burdensome, but the city also sees recycling as untapped profit. The city has a 20-year "put-or-pay" contract with Covanta, the company that manages H-POWER, which requires Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services to provide 800,000 tons of MSW annually, or pay pay a steep penalty for any lost revenue from energy sales. From 2013 to 2016, the city had to pay Covanta over $6.2 million, according to an audit (PDF) of the city’s recycling program released in October.

Honolulu could save $7 million in disposal costs and generate $29.5 million in revenue by diverting its plastic and paper recycling to the H-POWER facility. The city also has a profit-sharing arrangement with Covanta for energy sold to HECO, which some see as a perverse incentive to produce more waste rather than less. For Kahikina, recycling doesn’t pencil out, and the city sees incineration as an integrated solution to a multifaceted problem.

But Honolulu’s proposed solution is not without critics. Sierra Club’s Oahu chapter opposes the incineration of recycling due to H-POWER’s toxic emissions as waste-to-energy continues to stoke debate among environmentalists.

Waste-to-energy also undermines the embodied energy of recyclables, according to Ellen Martin, vice president of Impact and Strategic Initiatives at Closed Loop Partners. The impact investment fund focuses on strengthening domestic infrastructure for recycling and circular supply chains in North America. "A plastic water bottle can be recycled 30 times. You have to start to ask, are we capturing as much value as we can out the material that’s already been taken from the ground?"

Greg Gaug, vice president of investments at Ulupono Initiative, a Hawaii-focused impact investing firm, is more sympathetic to the challenge of reconciling the local economics of recycling with the global environmental footprint of their impacts.

"They are in a challenging position, and they’re doing the best that they can. The circular economy is attractive and has potential, but at the same time we have to realize it’s not realistic to think that we will be able to optimize every single piece of waste. And it may end up being that for some waste, its best use will be to put it in H-POWER and have waste to energy and avoid imported oil and fossil-fuel use for our energy." Gaug suggested, "The end goal is 100 percent elimination of waste going to the landfills," an outcome that Kahikina and Covanta manager Barry Nakamoto could both agree on.

"In Hawaii you have to look at the whole system together and think about where opportunities exist for private and public operators to work together with investors to make a system that works for energy and waste management needs," Martin suggested.

But even defining the most sustainable solution within the environmental, economic and political context of Honolulu’s waste management system will be easier said than done. The fate of Honolulu’s recycling will remain in limbo until the city completes its 2018 Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan in November.

In the meantime, Martin urged stakeholders to recognize their shared role in solving for sustainability in the city’s recycling industry. "It’s not just the municipality’s problem, it’s not just the tourism industry’s problem, it’s not just residents’ problem. It’s everybody’s shared responsibility and interests."