VOICES: Bring back curbside recycling

In the face of the climate crisis, widespread pollution and post-pandemic challenges, it has never been more important to promote sustainability, equity and self-sufficiency on Kaua‘i.

As the county updates its Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan — its roadmap for waste management through 2030 — it’s critical to emphasize recycling and composting to promote island-wide sustainability. This will benefit the environment, the people and the economy of Kaua‘i now and for many generations to come.

Globally, the consequences of our throwaway society are startling. By 2050 there is expected to be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Approximately 1/3 of all food produced is not eaten. The U.S. continues to produce the most waste per capita of any country.

Although Kaua‘i County has implemented various innovative strategies, such as Styrofoam and single-use plastic bans, the majority of the island’s waste ends up in the Kekaha Landfill, which is rapidly running out of space.

Around 30% of waste sent to the landfill is potentially recyclable plastic, paper, metal and glass. Another 10% of waste sent to landfill is food, and 18% is other organic material, the majority of which could be composted.

This means that around half of the waste sent to landfill on Kaua‘i could be composted or recycled into valuable new materials, rather than taking thousands of years to degrade in landfill while releasing pollutants into the environment.

Curbside recycling is the norm in 74% of the U.S., and is what Kaua‘i needs. To implement curbside recycling, the county would collect recyclables from the curb in residential areas and deliver them to an on-island processing site, called a material recovery facility. The MRF will process the recyclables for sale to businesses that make new products. A MRF is essential for efficient residential and commercial recycling.

Curbside recycling will allow residents to recycle from home, making recycling easier, more accessible and more affordable. A 2011 trial of curbside recycling for 1,300 Kaua‘i residents found that 73% of participants said they recycled more with curbside recycling.

Curbside recycling and a MRF will transform waste into a resource, creating a regenerative, circular economy. This will divert waste from the landfill to extend its existing life, conserve natural resources, prevent pollution from extraction of raw materials, and keep materials in reuse rather than polluting ecosystems. Furthermore, recycling saves energy that is used to extract raw materials and manufacture goods, ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the climate crisis.

Despite being more affordable than a new landfill, curbside recycling and a MRF have been sidelined by the county for over a decade. A new landfill is estimated to cost between $80-$150 million, a waste-to-energy facility could cost more than $125 million, while a MRF is estimated to cost $12 million. Furthermore, recycling creates an average of 10 jobs for every one job created by a landfill. With a MRF, byproducts from recycling are transformed into assets, increasing Kaua‘i’s economic security and self-reliance. From buildings made from plastic waste to golf course sand made from recycled glass, a range of innovative and sustainable opportunities arise from recycling.

Curbside recycling will also set up the framework for curbside greenwaste and food-waste collection, which could further divert food waste (10%) and other organic material (18%) from landfill. Organic waste in landfill produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas with over 20 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

In contrast, composting can simultaneously sequester carbon in the soil and improve plant health and production as part of a sustainable, local food system.

In order to make this a reality, the county should consider banning commercial food-waste from landfill, encouraging at-home composting, providing curbside greenwaste and food-waste collection and supporting regional composting as part of the updated ISWMP.

Given the accelerating climate crisis and the economic toll of the pandemic, decisions made in this decade will shape the future of the island and all who depend on it. As Kaua‘i County outlines its waste-management plan for the next decade in the ISWMP, and as the council votes on May 26 on the county budget (FY21-22), it is vital we act now to promote curbside recycling and composting essential parts of a sustainable island.

Kaua‘i County is accepting public comments on the ISWMP now through July 18, and will hold a public hearing on June 17. Urge the county to prioritize curbside recycling and composting in the updated ISWMP by submitting testimony and letting your voice be heard. For more information, sign up on the Zero Waste Kaua‘i website at zerowastekauai.net.

The council Budget Committee is scheduled to vote on the county‘s FY 21-22 budget on May 26. The current CIP budget defunds the MRF but funds a waste-to-energy study. Send testimony to counciltestimony@kauai.gov, re: Bill No. 2819, asking the council to fund a construction design for the MRF, the next step toward curbside recycling.


Gemma Shepherd lives in Kilauea. Fascinated by waste management, regenerative design and building circular economies, she enjoys volunteering for Zero Waste Kaua‘i and digging into issues and opportunities that arise from trash.

  1. kauaiboy May 23, 2021 6:10 am Reply

    Bring BACK curbside recycling?

    We’ve never had it.

    If all that stuff can be recycled cost-effectively, I am all for it.

    It would save me, and many others, time and money spent driving to a transfer station and sorting out our recyclables while watching less involved residents toss recyclable materials over the tip, bound for Mount Kekaha…

  2. John Patt May 23, 2021 7:46 am Reply

    Gemma’s article is right on target.
    The alternative to curbside is Waste to Energy (WTE), or burning our opala. WTE will pump CO2 and other toxins into the air. It will compete with recycling which will add to our climate problem because it take far more energy to make items from virgin than from recycled material.
    As for the electricity it would produce, that is going in the opposite direction of KIC’s plans. KIUC is trying to move into renewable energy, and WTE is not renewable. It requires more and more trash to keep the fires burning.
    We need to support curbside, and not revert to compromising 20th century technology to deal with 21st century problems.

  3. Kauaidoug May 23, 2021 8:16 am Reply

    I moved here 14 years ago from a community that did curbside recycling. I was appalled at the state of recycling then and it hasn’t improved to my eyes.

    Ms Shepherd is right on. Let’s recycle instead of build a new recycling center not in my back yard!

  4. andrew May 23, 2021 8:23 am Reply

    Would it be possible to obtain information on where things go regarding “recycled” items??? Is there anywhere or anyone that can provide information on what happens when we go to the big green cardboard recycle stations? What happens to the cardboard after we put to onto the green box, and where do the plastic bottles and glass go? Ive asked around and no one seems to have a definite answer for where the materials actually go, or if they are actually “recycled” at all. I support curbside recycling, but I question if any recycling is happening on the island at all. And if it is, then the data should be made public.

  5. YuCalJoe May 23, 2021 12:34 pm Reply

    Ignore the “climate problem” that has been mentioned. Instead we should all be good stewards of the earth and its resources. I’m all for recycling, reducing carbon emissions, reducing use of toxins where possible, solar, wind and hydro energy and more without having the term “climate change” being attached to it all. My reason is that the term “climate change” is being used to make people rich at the expense of everyone. As an example, a federal government grant from President Obama to a solar company left the solar company investors rich, the company bankrupt, and the taxpayers on the hook. Ancient Hawaiians were living in a responsible manner long before the invention of the term “climate change”. Many of those same behaviors can be practiced now along with common sense changes.

  6. WestKauai May 23, 2021 4:33 pm Reply

    For years they have had curbside recycling and waste-to-energy on Oahu. I don’t understand why we can’t do it on Kauai. By the way, west-siders call it Mount Yukimura as it began under her administration…

  7. RGLadder37 May 24, 2021 1:14 am Reply

    Styrofoam is here to stay. Many of the local businesses will not do away with the use of the containers for lunch and dinner containers. The plastic forks and knives are still in use. And plastic bags are still given out, only clear kind is the use of it now. By doing away with these materials the businesses will lose business. I highly doubt this will happen. Still in use are these materials. And i support the businesses whatever they choose. Why shouldn’t I at this point? Like I said earlier, the only way to dispose of these materials is to burn them. But no one can handle the smell of it, or the smoke itself. So they stopped it.

  8. TINA FRENCH May 24, 2021 8:52 am Reply

    Andrew….your questions are spot on. I have owned a garbage and recycling collection company for 30 years on the mainland (Oregon Coast). Knowing what happens to your source separated recycleables is very important. As many of us know, we were not aware that most of our recycling was getting shipped to China. Once in China what happened to it? We now know that much of what we were shipping to China was not recycleable material at all. They were disposing of much of what was being shipped there. Now that China will not take our material anymore, we have changed to shipping to India, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries that do not have air or water control measures like we do in the US.
    The most important thing that all residents should know is…..Where does my recycling end up?
    The other thing to consider is the carbon offsets that you are actually acheiving (or not) by recycling each commodity. Some recycleables cost us more carbon than is saved. Meaning it may be a better environmental choice to send it to the landfill than put it in the recycling. Shipping recycleable material off island costs us tons of fossil fuels.
    At the end of the day…it makes us all “feel better” if we recycle a container vs. putting it in garbage. But, that is just the beginning of the story. If you really care about the environment you have to educate yourself on:
    What it is, where it is going, how is it going to be recycled, what is the carbon offset for that commodity?
    We work hard to educate our customers to not be “wishful recyclers” meaning if you can’t answer those questions, it may be better to put it in the landfill instead of shipping it all over the world only to be put in a landfill (if we’re lucky) in some faraway land. Unfortunately, we are just sending our garbage to someother country to deal with and we feel good about it because we put it in the recycling instead of the garbage can.
    My feeling is that if Kauai wants to add a collection program, Mixed Compostables would be our best bet. All of our yard debris and food could be collected curbside and that material could be kept on the island and composted into beautiful soil that can be used on the island. This is a truley sustainable program. It is not cheap, but it does divert approx.
    30-40% by volume sent to the landfill. These programs have been very successful here in Oregon and it only makes sense to keep material on the island rather than spending more fossil fuels to ship it off somewhere.
    Let’s talk trash…..
    Tina French

  9. Y NOT May 27, 2021 8:06 pm Reply


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