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Talkin’ Trash: Recycling and Trash Transformation

Experts discuss the past, present and future of waste management.

May 16, 2013
Celeste Keele - Contributing Writer , Maui Weekly

You're thirsty, headed for the beach and forget to bring water. So you stop at a store, grab a bottle and chug it down. Now, how should you properly "dispose" of this hunk of plastic?

This is actually a complex issue that our leaders, too, are grappling with, but on a much larger scale. What should be done with Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)?

The Upcountry Sustainability meeting on Thursday, May 9, at the Hannibal Tavares Community Center in Pukalani touched on this and other questions, as experts "talked trash" with an attentive audience comprised of many experts and professionals.

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Sustainable Living Institute of Maui Executive Director Jennifer Chirico explained the history of waste management, the problems and some of the new technologies.

From the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui (SLIM), Executive Director Jennifer Chirico, Ph.D., said that the U.S. developed its first "sanitary" landfill (lined, so chemicals don't leach into the groundwater) in 1934. Before this, garbage was burned. Before that, in the pre-1800s, the people of the Hawaiian Islands lived in harmony with the land. All of the materials they used could be reused or reabsorbed--"given back to the land."

Since then, "we've created all these things that don't go back into the Earth," Chirico said. As of 2007, there were 2,760 active landfills in the U.S.--many of them unlined, and many already close to capacity.

Although Maui's landfill still has room, Maui County is looking ahead.

Enter Kyle Ginoza, director of environmental management for Maui County, reporting on best waste management options. He said he takes full responsibility ("Shame on you, Kyle," he laughed) for his suggestion to stop the county drop box recycling program (for newspapers, glass, plastic, cardboard, aluminum, etc. HI-5 is also located separately at these centers).

Why close the drop sites? As he explained it, "The cost to recycle is 15 times more than to landfill."

These county recycling drop boxes divert only "1.5 percent of trash away from the landfill, and yet costing $700,000 a year--20 percent of the county's total waste management costs," Ginoza said. "We're talking about a percentage [diverted from the landfill] that's almost imperceptible. Is that the best use of $700,000 of county money?"

The numbers just don't add up, according to Ginoza, although there were some in the audience, including heads of companies who ship recycling for the county, who disagreed with his calculation of recycling costs, calling it "fuzzy math."

Robert Parsons, environmental coordinator and the mayor's liaison, attended the meeting and noted that some audience members disagreed with Ginoza's numbers. He acknowledged their frustration with the county for using statistics some believe to be inflated concerning the costs of recycling and of the overpriced bid for the processing contract to Maui Disposal.

"It's good to see the community coming out to participate in the process and asking good questions," Parsons said. "I believe this is the first conversation of many more to come."

In any case, he told the Maui Weekly that for now, "there will be no change in the operation of the county drop boxes, and they will remain open."

What about curbside recycling? The curbside recycling pilot program (the Three-Can Plan: one for the landfill; one for green waste; one for mixed recyclables) started in Maui Meadows last year.

"During that time, the Kihei drop box tonnage dropped roughly two tons a month," said Ginoza. "However, there is a [total increase] in tonnage due to the curbside recyclables, an average mixed recyclables and green waste collection of roughly 30 tons and 63 tons per month, respectively," Ginoza explained to the Maui Weekly.

Ginoza also pointed out that curbside recycling costs less for the county, and it "diverts 3 percent, or double what we get from the drop boxes," plus green waste.

Based on numbers from the pilot, curbside recycling would cost about $80 per year per account, increasing costs by a little over $6 a month per household--"not much more than we pay now," Ginoza added.

He stressed that although the community might clamor for more services, most residents are against any increase in costs.

"Don't you dare raise my rates!" is the common cry of many residents who now pay $216 a year now for trash pickup ($18 a month), Kyle said.

Approximately 85 percent of Maui's residents are signed up for that service.

Unfortunately, as Chirico and Ginoza both pointed out, there is a unique culture here--and on islands, in general--of illegal trash dumping onto the landscape. Studies show that if fees for trash go up even a little, so does the amount of illegal dumping.

"People here don't feel [trash collection] is compulsory," said Ginoza. "But there are hidden costs that others are picking up."

Also, trash pickup frequency would be cut in half--just once a week--in the curbside schedule.

Some curbside recycling advantages include clean recyclables (worth more to buyers), no sorting, more jobs, and of course, landfill diversion.

Ginoza then presented the new waste-to-energy system, since we "have to have some options," he said. "Otherwise, it's status quo versus the Cadillac of recycling."

Maui County would like to try one of the new waste management technologies now available.

The MBT (Mechanical Biological Treatment) facility "is super-popular in Europe now" as a waste management option, said Chirico. Trash is mechanically sorted, and some of it is used to make two fuels. One is liquid natural gas created from anaerobic digestion of trash, speeding up the landfill process. The other fuel is a "brick" of densified refuse-derived fuel (RDF), which contains two-thirds of the energy value of coal (which some companies still import).

The county is "aiming for an 85 percent diversion from the landfill," and the facility itself will use the fuel from this process to meet its energy needs, called a "parasitic load," explained Ginoza. This will be a privately financed venture, as "public financing can be dangerous" in situations like these.

"We didn't want to borrow this much," he added.

When asked if this would be a moneymaker for the county, Ginoza said, "Basically, it's going to be an offset of costs by not landfilling as much."

So, if you're still clutching that empty water bottle, consider this:

1. Consider carefully when you buy, and not just about the money in your pocket. "For every ton of waste you produce, 71 tons of waste is produced upstream," explained Chirico. So before that water bottle got to us, it already cost a lot of energy to produce and created a lot of waste.

2. Composting waste is the most sustainable strategy of all, Chirico said. It's our original zero-waste ancestral inheritance.

3. Waste has been called a "misplaced resource" and that "someone's trash is someone else's treasure." Start small with clothes and household goods, or go bigger with a brilliant program called Aloha Shares Network, the connection point for reuse and redirection of goods on Maui. Its mission "is to keep good, usable material out of Maui's landfill and get this material into the hands of our nonprofits, churches, and schools, and the community at large." (See to learn more.)

Lesson learned: Waste is a terrible thing to waste.



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