The plastic problem

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Barbara Weidner talks about Surfrider Kauai’s new marine debris processing center, behind Restore Kauai in Kapaa.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Surfrider Kauai now has a marine debris processing center, behind Restore Kauai in Kapaa, where more than 10,000 pounds of debris is awaiting removal to Oahu.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Over five tons of fishing nets and other marine debris collected from the shores of Kauai await export to Oahu at the Surfrider Kauai marine debris processing center in Kapaa, behind Restore Kauai.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Supporters of Surfrider Kauai dedicate a marine debris processing center, behind Restore Kauai in Kapaa, where more than 10,000 pounds of debris is awaiting removal to Oahu.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Surfrider Kauai now has a marine debris processing center, behind Restore Kauai in Kapaa, where more than 10,000 pounds of debris is awaiting removal to Oahu.

KAPAA — Kauai is like a net in the Pacific Ocean, catching the world’s trash as it spirals out of the Pacific Gyre.

And that’s not the only garbage that’s accumulating on the island.

Residents generate it too, and with a landfill at capacity, the county is starting conversations with nonprofits and conservationists like Surfrider Kauai and Zero Waste Kauai to get a handle on the problem.

“There are two aspects to this conversation: the downstream waste management and a movement to upstream regulation,” said Jesse Brown-Clay, who has been working with Zero Waste Kauai.

He continued: “We have an opportunity to be a leader in sustainability, but we need direct action opportunities.”

Surfrider has more than 10,000 pounds of nets and debris claimed from the beaches just in the last six months. The Kauai landfill is brimming with plastic and other trash that either can’t be recycled or simply wasn’t.

While the county doesn’t keep track of the types of materials going into the landfill, it does collect data through the Kauai Recycles Drop Bins. On average, 63 tons of plastic a year is captured through the program. The HI-5 redemption program captures almost 400 tons per year of bottle plastics.

China stops accepting some recyclables

China’s decision in January to stop accepting post-consumer recyclables exacerbated the situation further, causing the county’s Department of Public Works Solid Waste Division to stop accepting plastic trays and clamshells in February.

“This is a major issue for all recyclers and municipalities throughout North America and may have unknown and drastic impacts,” said acting County Engineer Lyle Tabata during the February announcement.

Of the 63 tons accepted annually in Kauai Recycles, officials estimate about a third of it was trays and clamshells — about 20 tons per year.

The average amount of material handled daily at the landfill in Kekaha is about 205 tons.

Prior to the decision by China, all recyclables that were collected were being sent to China, with the exception of metals and glass, the county said.

Now, aluminum is sent to an American market. Beverage containers are shipped to California to make new bottles. Glass like wine bottles, food jars and liquor bottles are crushed in a Garden Isle Disposal processing machine and used on-island for projects like backfill, pipe cushioning, base course and landscaping.

Garden Isle Disposal handles all the county’s recycling via contract and keeps materials moving to keep space in its warehouse.

Around the same time, the county announced more streamlined processing of newspaper and mixed paper, and that has created a “positive impact,” according to Allison Fraley, Kauai’s solid waste program coordinator.

Waiting for materials recovery facility

Residents are still waiting on the fully operating materials recovery facility (MRF) on Kauai, which is part of the vision for the Kauai Resource Center that opened in 2002.

That facility currently hosts compost bin distribution on Fridays, household battery recycling on weekdays, and bi-annual household hazardous waste collection events, but isn’t open for recycling right now due to a dispute over contracts.

The first recycling vendor was Island Recycling; that contract terminated in 2006. Garden Isle Disposal ran HI-5 recycling and non-HI-5 recycling from 2007 to 2016. After that contract ended, it was awarded to KCRS, Inc. That contract was in effect from December 2016 to April 2017.

Vendor dispute

“There was a dispute between the vendor and the county regarding the contract terms, so the parties ultimately mutually agreed to terminate the contract,” Fraley said. “Since that time, the county has worked to solicit a new HI-5 recycling vendor at the Kauai Resource Center. “

There are six other places on-island to recycle HI-5 containers.

The county has proposed creating a MRF at the Kauai Resource Center to accept, process, recycle, clean and separate recyclable materials, and that was discussed at the recent opening of Surfrider Kauai’s Marine Debris Processing Center behind Restore Kauai in Kapaa.

The consensus was that a MRF is needed on Kauai — one place that accepts all recyclables in a way that makes sense for the community.

Though plans exist for such a facility, it hasn’t moved forward because “it wasn’t a priority for decision makers” in recent years, Fraley said.

Councilman Mason Chock, who attended the Surfrider processing center opening, said from his perspective it’s a toss-up between the MRF and the new landfill, also currently in the planning stages.

“Do we need to move forward on the MRF or do the landfill?” he asked at the opening. “It comes down to priority, but it doesn’t mean anything if the leaders don’t pull a trigger.”

The community has a unique chance to weigh in on the discussion, too, as the Solid Waste Division is about to start its required 10-year update of the county’s solid waste plan.

Fraley said the department will be putting together a community advisory council for the update and is looking for members. Contact the Solid Waste Division at 241-4839 for more information.

Ocean debris becomes ours

While Kauai scrambles to figure out what to do with the waste generated on the island, members of Surfrider said there should also be a concern about the amount of debris in the oceans in general.

“Once it gets on the beach, we have to get rid of it. What we have the most of here is stuff that floated in from throughout the North Pacific,” said Surfrider Kauai member Carl Berg. “It’s moving in and out all the time with the water.”

Kauai Surfrider’s Rob Bower pointed out a buoy tracked throughout the Pacific Gyre in 2016 that circled the trash island twice before getting spit out and sent straight to Kauai.

“The trash to electricity program and sending it to Oahu like we do now, it’s not a good deal,” he said.

Bower continued: “It releases a lot of emissions. We sent it to the company Method on the Mainland to make plastic bottles and overwhelmed them with plastic. Help us come up with a solution on what to do.”


Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or

  1. numilalocal July 8, 2018 11:06 am Reply

    With China, long the dumping ground of the rest of the world’s ‘recycled” plastic, no longer accepting this commodity, it’s incumbent upon us to reduce – or preferably eliminate – the consumption of single-use plastics.

  2. numilalocal July 8, 2018 11:10 am Reply

    And didn’t GID exponentially increase the monthly fees for processing the contents of recycling bins? Was this the primary reason that there is no curbside recycling anymore? The sad consequence of the large bins is that they encourage laziness: I’ve seen so much cardboard and other recyclable items in those bins…

  3. debra kekaualua July 8, 2018 9:29 pm Reply

    Excellent learning session. mAhalo to all that support and work hard for Kauai Surfrider. “Solutions” are key, and kauaʻi certainly needs solutions for the islands landfill recycle reuse, zero waste issues. There are many scholars in our hood that will find those solutions, and if you think you have one, become involved. The island community is screaming for strong momentum and clear thinking people. Alas, i believe through the different departments and political climate, it may take a while to find these answers, but Never say never. It was Nice to engage with real community leaders, walking the talk.

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