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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.