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00000179-60bf-d8e2-a9ff-f5ff30200001Nearly five years ago, Hawaii Public Radio reported a series of stories about the state of garbage around the islands. This week and next, we’re going back for another look in a series we’re calling “Trashing the Islands.”

Trashing The Islands: Tossing, Forgetting No Longer Viable

Ryan Finnerty/HPR
Trash is emptied into the Pu'uanahulu Landfill, north of Kailua-Kona. The site is now Hawaii Island’s sole landfill and the destination for all of the island’s refuse.";s:

Nearly five years ago, Hawaii Public Radio reported a series of stories about the state of garbage around the islands. This week and next, we’re going back for another look in a series we’re calling “Trashing the Islands.”

From November to December, our reporters visited each of the main islands What we found was concerning. While some conditions have changed for the better, each county continues to struggle with this reality: that we’re producing more trash than we can reasonably handle. Our trash is quite simply eating up scarce tax dollars and harming the environment. 


Five years ago, officials of the City and County of Honolulu were looking at options to replace the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill. They’re still looking. The current target date for closing is 2028.

Around the islands, other landfills are in different conditions.

On the Big Island, the Hilo landfill topped out last year. But on the west side, county officials say decades of capacity remain. So the island's trash from the Hilo side gets trucked to Kona.

In Maui County, half of the four landfills are approaching capacity. The biggest one has just two years of life left, and endless expansions and consumption aren't tenable, officials acknowledge.

On Kauai, management of the island’s single landfill has been a long-running dispute — and now the county has taken it over. But the landfill is filling up and finding a location for another one will be an expensive proposition for the small island.

This week, we’ll report more details on each county’s situation. While the specifics vary, there are some shared challenges — like recycling.

Two years ago, China banned the import of most plastics — shutting down what had been the world’s largest market for recyclable waste, including plastics.

That blew up the economics of recycling for every developed country — and for Hawaii.

Josh Stanbro, executive director of the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency for the City and County of Honolulu, sees the global challenge.

Josh Stanbro, chief resilience officer, City and County of Honolulu

“You know, right now China has said, ‘No more. We’re not going to take your junk, America. We’re not gonna take wholesale your plastic throwaway stuff,'" he told HPR's Noe Tanigawa. "And now, you know, finding new markets for that is both more expensive, and morally it’s more difficult.”

Market changes have also destroyed contractors that once bought recycled material from county governments to re-sell to dealers in Asia.

Greg Goodale, chief of the Solid Waste Division of Hawaii County’s Department of Environmental Management, told HPR’s Ryan Finnerty the situation for contractors turned from an opportunity for making money to a certainty of losing it.

“When they did their contract with the county, they were expecting a certain amount of profit to come out of this arrangement. And instead, what they were finding is that it was actually costing them a lot of money just to be able to continue on with this contract,” Goodale said.

It’s not just recycling that’s changed—we’ll look at the impact of the growing challenge of our opala and talk about solutions all this week and next in our series, “Trashing the Islands.”

We'd like to hear your comments on our stories and questions you have about dealing with our trash problem. Call us on our Talk Back line at (808) 792-8217 and leave your comment, name and phone number. Or email us at, tweet us @wearehpr or comment on Facebook

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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