Kauaʻi Recycling Buffeted By Global Market Prices, Solutions Won't Be Easy

Jan 16, 2020

Recycling is a good goal. It reuses materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill. But the world market is changing and, for Kauaʻi, this means rethinking whether exporting recyclables to other countries is sustainable.

Few know this better than Alvin Tadani, operations manager at Garden Island Disposal, the county's only contractor for processing the island's recyclables.

On a recent day at the company's warehouse in Nāwiliwili, Tadani inspects bales of cardboard.

Alvin Tadani, operations manager for Garden Island Disposal, inspects cardboard off-loaded by one of the company's trucks.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi/HPR

Each of these bricks of compacted cardboard weighs 1,400 pounds. They need to be shipped out to overseas buyers today.

But Tadani is not happy.

“Right now, you can see, the moisture levels,” says Tadani. “It won’t be accepted in China or Vietnam.”

A wet bale of cardboard is trouble for Kaua'i's only recycler, Garden Island Disposal. It means smaller markets and lower prices from overseas buyers.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi/HPR

These countries pay top dollar for recyclables like cardboard. But the bales need to be dry enough to meet restrictions on contamination -- that’s the label given recyclables that are too dirty or moist or otherwise can’t be sold.

“When it’s good, it’s good,” says Tadani. “But when the market drops like this, you gotta be able to sustain the losses.”

All of Kaua'i's recyclables are hand-sorted by workers at Garden Island Disposal.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi/HPR

Allison Fraley, Kauaʻi County’s solid waste program coordinator, said the island is not alone in dealing with an overseas market where prices are falling and buyers are choosy.

“Everybody’s in this situation, like, across the nation,” said Fraley. “They say the markets aren’t going to improve any time soon.”

That’s bad news for the counties and the contractors they hire to process recyclables. If they can’t sell the materials at a decent rate,  won’t work financially -- unless the processors are subsidized.

Glass is the only recyclable material that isn't shipped off island. Glass that is not accepted for redemption under the state's HI-5 program is crushed by Garden Island Disposal and sold for use in construction and landscaping projects.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi/HPR

So Kauaʻi Mayor Derek Kawakami says developing local markets for recyclables is a more sustainable solution.

“[Such as] if we can start looking at where we can create economy to perhaps start manufacturing some value-added products on island or utilizing some of our commodities like crushed glass in public works projects,” said Kawakami. “So it’s just about being creative, thinking outside the box.”

All of Kaua'i County's recyclables are processed here at the Garden Island Disposal headquarters in Nawiliwili.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi/HPR

These ideas may end up in the county’s long-term Solid Waste Management Plan, which Kauai is updating.

“Some of the discussion, I think, is going to be about curbside recycling and whether or not ... that’s something that the public is pushing for,” said Fraley. “There’s a cost to that. Everybody has to figure out whether it’s the cost that the taxpayers can bear.”

If market prices continue to drop, even processing more recyclables may not be profitable enough for Garden Island Disposal. And that would leave the county with a lot of questions about its recycling future.

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.