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The island of Oahu, Hawaii generates more than 2.2 million tons of waste annually from residential, commercial and industrial sources. Considering that the island’s population is less than one hundred thousand people, it is a lot of waste. Hawaii has long evoked images of a remote Pacific paradise, a land of pristine beaches and extraordinary biodiversity. But its unique location has forced the islands to reckon with an unwelcome guest: plastic debris washing up in vast quantities, sullying its waters and threatening its marine life.

Of course there are a lot of non-profit organizations that 1) promote zero-waste, 2) raise awareness of plastic pollution, and 3) encourage recycling – but does it actually work? I was also curious about the governments involvement on such issues.

I moved to Hawaii in November 2019, conducting my own research on the topics of plastic pollution in the Pacific, business operations of local authorities on the islands, and how harmful the industry is to the environment locally.

I started to work with several non-profits to get to know the industry from the inside, and to understand how waste management system works in Hawaii in general. When coming to Hawaii, everyone back in Europe was telling me ‘It is such a great place to live! People respect nature and have a healthy lifestyle. You will feel happy there because of it’. In reality I learned that that yes, people do respect their land and their kupuna, but do not show it with their actions. The amount of single-use plastic thrown away in trash cans is unbelievable. Every beach around the island has increasing micro-plastic and fishing lines. Unfortunately, Hawaii is not that so called ‘paradise’ to me anymore.

For some reason, I believed that organizing the beach cleanups, and gathering all of that plastic from the beaches of Hawaii will make a huge difference, but a couple of months later I will realize it will not. At that time I was okay with buying recyclable plastic from the supermarket, because I knew that there are recyclable facilities in Hawaii that delivers it to H-Power, an incinerator in Honolulu that generates 8% to 10% of the island’s electricity. So, in my logic, I was buying plastic that produces energy for the islands of Hawaii. Not bad, right?

That ‘less-waste’ lifestyle I had for several months, and several years back in Europe worked pretty well for me until a recent beach clean-up I was participating in on the North Shore of Oahu with my team, and I questioned where does this plastic we gather from the beach actually go? Also, once sorted at home, Where Do All Of Hawaii’s Recyclables Go?

Fortunately or unfortunately the waste management system in Hawaii is a pointless and endless cycle. Based on the official statements, the recycling system on Oahu is not a good business. “It’s a question of how much it’s going to cost for a vendor to remanufacture that material into something that’s potentially usable and whether that’s ultimately a good investment of the public’s money.” - writes CivilBeat.

Not many of us know, but the city of Honolulu made a deal with Covanta Holding Corporation, a public company that provides energy-from-waste and industrial waste management services. Most of Covanta’s revenue comes from operating power plants that burn trash as fuel. The deal was that the city will deliver 800,000 tons of trash a year to H-Power to produce the islands’s electricity, but they end up paying more than $6 million in fees (Lost Electrical Energy Revenue) not being able to provide that amount of trash to the local incinerator . So, it looks like we need to use more plastic, and produce more waste so the local H-power plant will not be punished financially from Covanta, and will produce enough electricity for the state.

So what does it mean to me and you as a resident of Hawaii who really wants to help the environment, not produce much waste, but also support the local businesses and communities? You should definitely look at the zero waste movement, and start at least bringing your own reusable cups, utensils, and cotton bags to the local cafes, places you eat, and supermarkets/farmers markets you shop at. This is the solution I found for myself and highly encourage my family members and friends to do the same thing. Here is a good Oahu Zero Waste article on personal care showing where you can buy sustainable and biodegradable products on Oahu replacing your single-use items.

A girl is cleaning a polluted beach full of plastic alone.
Beach clean-up, Kahuku Point, Hawaii

We need to ask ourselves a simple question - what is the purpose of recycling first of all? I will tell you that it is not about keeping the same shopping habits and just recycle everything you can, but first of all it is about pollution prevention, and in order to prevent the environmental disaster from happening, we need to look into the combustion of fossil fuels - simply greenhouse gas emissions, CO2 as we know it.

Hawaii does not have a traditional recycling plant in the state, so the vast majority of the 56 million pounds of aluminum, bi-metal, glass and plastic collected by the state’s Hi-5 program last year had to be transported off-island, and all of those garbage trucks and shipping vessels emit CO2 and other pollutants which, in my opinion, contradicts the idea of recycling ‘for the planet’.

Moreover, ‘traveling trash’ does not end its journey somewhere in California where Hawaii has been exporting a big part of its waste, but it goes to developing countries in Southeast Asia where waste often has very harmful effects on the local environment and human health.

In both cases, shipping it overseas or burning in the local power-plant, the end-result is the same - the number of greenhouse emissions entering the atmosphere are too high.

What will I personally do now after discovering this new facts? Let’s see. I will still be cleaning the Hawaiian beaches from micro-plastic or regular trash and raising awareness on this issue, even if I know that this trash will be burned or shipped overseas producing a lot of CO2s, but at least the turtles and monk seals that are native to this area will be eating less lids from plastic bottles, and won’t be trapped as often in the fishing lines as they are now. I will still be taking my reusable utensils, Hydroflask cups/bottles, and cotton bags everywhere I go. I will still ride my electric bike. I will still be composting (which is recycling various organic materials otherwise regarded as waste products, producing a very good soil conditioner). I will still be planting a lot of trees and plants around the island. It is all about giving back to mother nature and your local community by living sustainably, using less chemicals and adopting more green alternatives and habits in your life. I will also do my best to raise more awareness which is the purpose of this article.


Thank you for reading. Aloha everyone!

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