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At Hawaii's IUCN, The Zero Waste Event That Wasn't

Flickr / US Mission Geneva
Flickr / US Mission Geneva

The largest conservation conference, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, recently wrapped up earlier this month. One thing that was stressed was its commitment to zero waste. But as HPR’s Molly Solomon reports, the conference wasn’t as green as advertised. 

The event was marketed as zero waste. Or at least that’s what the IUCN said in its Green Congress policy on its website. The idea was to divert leftover food and compostable materials out of the waste stream.

“Whatever is left over, but has not been bought or eaten would be given to charities,” explained IUCN Logistics Manager Alexandra Petersen. “And then the compost is composted and sent to farmers.”

But that latter part didn’t end up happening. Styrophobia President Jennifer Milholen led the local group that applied for a permit to compost the materials coming out of the IUCN.

“We had all the logistics worked out, but it came down to the permit,” said Milholen. “It wasn’t able to be approved in time.”

Molly Solomon
Credit Molly Solomon
Trash cans at the IUCN conservation conference that concluded earlier this month, including bins for compostable materials. Because a permit was not approved in time, the material was not able to be composted as originally planned.

Without an approved permit, Styrophobia couldn’t legally divert that food waste to compost.

The original plan would have gone something like this: Milholen would pick up bins of food scraps and other waste, bring it to local farmers, who could add it to their existing compost. It would have been the first time the state would have had a composting option for a large convention.

“That was what was so exciting. We were trying to divert to farms for composting and we were piloting a system that hasn’t be used before,” Milholen said. “It was an opportunity to try something, and I wanted to try it on a big scale.”

A good opportunity that Milholen said became a missed opportunity.

According to the state Department of Health, Stryophobia’s application was not submitted within the 180 day window that’s required.  Lene Ichinotsubo is with the DOH solid waste program. She says because of low staffing in her department, more time is needed to get through any applications.

“I have a total of six positions, with only two filled, so we’re really almost a one-man team,” said Ichinotsubo. “We’re really down”

Back at Styrophobia, Jennifer Milholen is still calculating how much compostable waste was generated at the convention. She says they’ve counted more than two tons alone, just in compostable containers. She’s still waiting to see how much food waste could have been diverted.

“Even though we’re not able to divert the food waste as planned, we’re still going through with collecting all the compostable material,” Milholen said. “And we’re going to get a lot of incredible data out of it in terms of how much material is actually produced that could have been composted. That’s data we didn’t have before.”

She hopes that with that data, her proposal could still be pursued for future conventions. The Department of Health’s Lene Ichinotsubo said while she was disappointed the permit wasn’t approved in time for the large conference, there’s still time to come up with a longer term composting plan.

“It is a missed opportunity,” said Ichinotsubo. “But in the long run I think it’s going to be an operation that can be sustained over a longer period of time”

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.
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