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Facing Recycling Limits, Hawaii Island Residents Seek Local Option For Plastics

Ryan Finnerty
Hawaii Public Radio
A recycling collection bin at the Hilo Transfer Station. Hawaii County stopped accepting plastics for recycling in October.

Several months after Hawaii County stopped accepting plastic products at its recycling program, residents are looking for an alternative, and one not governed by international markets.

The change in what the county would accept came after private contractor Business Services Hawaii said in October it could no longer afford to process most plastics, prompting the county to stop accepting them for recycling.

In a quiet office park in Keaau, final destination for Hawaii Island’s recyclables, the company sorts and packages materials collected by Hawaii County and ships them off-island to be sold and processed.

When countries like China and Malaysia stopped accepting contaminated recyclable material, its market value plummeted. Recycling programs around the country were suddenly losing money. 

Although market forces were a major factor, Dani Burger, with the Hawaii Island nonprofit Recycle Hawaii, says local contamination was just as important.

"We could see that a lot of plastic still had food on it. There were paper towels, so just really not right grade items. There was plastic furniture in there and so these were all contamination," Berger said in an interview.

Contamination refers to dirty and non-recyclable materials thrown in with the good stuff. According to the county, as much as 25% of the recyclables collected were contaminated, which makes them more expensive to process.

Hawaii County is still recycling glass, cardboard, and brown paper. Everything else goes to the island’s landfill, north of Kona.

When asked if the county will be able to continue its recycling program in the face of international market pressure, Big Island Mayor Harry Kim has a short answer.

"We have to. And I have a hope that we'll find a better way to use waste like plastic, especially that we'll use it less and the overall quantity will go down," he said.

But how exactly to do that, remains an open question. 

Transitioning to a biodegradable plastic substitute like bamboo or bioplastic is one possibility. Disposable products could then be diverted from the landfill to an industrial composting facility the county is developing. But there’s also another option.

East Hawaii resident David Marquis, founder of Puna Precious Plastic, the first local chapter of an international organization trying to repurpose used plastics.

Marquis said the group has probably collected about a thousand pounds of waste plastic so far.

"The long-term goal would be to have a recycling facility where people could drop off their plastics, where it could be sorted, shredded and remanufactured onsite," he said.

Puna Precious Plastic has already organized four plastic drives that collected plastic materials from across Hawaii Island. 

The effort is entirely supported by private citizens who donate their time, labor, and land for storage.  Hauoli Yockeman is one of those volunteers. 

He said Precious Plastic offers a way for communities around the world to address plastic pollution without having to ship it overseas.

"This is something real. And if we can take care of it here, who's to say that we can't take care of it island-wide, statewide, globally," Yockeman said.

Marquis estimates the group will need to raise about $20,000 to get the equipment needed to prove its concept. The group is currently in the process of establishing a nonprofit organization so it can begin fundraising.

In the meantime, Business Services Hawaii will still accept clean Type 1 and 2 plastics for recycling and redemption centers will continue taking HI-5 beverage containers.

Everything else ends up in the West Hawaii landfill.

This story is part of our series, "Trashing The Islands," an examination of our waste practices statewide. We'd like to hear your comments and questions about our trash issues. Call us on our Talk Back line at (808) 792-8217 and leave your comment, name and phone number. You can also email us at news@hawaiipublicradio.org, tweet us @wearehpr or comment on our Facebook page.

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