Size is Advantage and Disadvantage for Small-Town Kauaʻi Dealing With Its Trash

Jan 10, 2020

Kauaʻi's rural landscape and small-town charm are characteristics residents here enjoy and strive to protect. But small-island living also means limited space and fewer options. As garbage continues to pile up at the island’s only landfill, Kauaʻi is looking to turn its small size into its biggest advantage. 

Kaua'i County trash carts line the streets in Wailua. The relatively new "Pay As You Throw" cart system aims to get residents thinking about the trash they generate.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

In Wailua Homesteads just before sunrise, a Kauaʻi County garbage truck makes its way along narrow, dimly-lit streets, scooping up gray trash carts that line the roads.

The carts are a relatively new sight for Kauaʻi residents. Five years ago, the county moved from unlimited curbside service to a system that allows just one cart per household per week. The “Pay As You Throw” system charges property owners a monthly fee ranging from $10 to $18 a month depending on the size of their cart.

Allison Fraley, the county’s solid waste programs coordinator, says Kauaʻi was the first county in the state to introduce the program.

“If people have a restriction in how much waste they can throw away and the size of their cart, then they’re going to think about what they’re generating,” said Fraley.

She says people don’t ordinarily pay attention to their trash because it’s so easy to throw it away. But Fraley points out there’s no such thing as “away.” Everything we toss needs to go somewhere.

The Kekaha Landfill has been accepting Kauaʻi's trash since the early 1970s. The landfill is currently being expanded to add another seven years to its lifespan. Another expansion took place in the early 1990s, when the first phase was capped and turned into the grassy hill pictured here.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

                                                          

Kauaʻi residents generate the least amount of waste of all the counties – about 147,000 tons of trash per year, according to state data. That accounts for about 5 percent of the total waste produced by the entire state. This makes sense given the county’s relatively small population of about 72,000 residents.

People here take great pride in the island’s small-town feel. But Kauaʻi Mayor Derek Kawakami said when it comes to figuring out where to put all this trash, the island’s size is one of its greatest challenges.

“We have a limited amount of airspace on our landfill. We have a growing population,” said Kawakami. “I think in the front of everybody’s mind is -- where is that next landfill going to be?”

Kekaha Landfill staff and researchers sort waste at the landfill to determine the most common types of garbage. Topping that list were construction materials and mixed paper.
Credit County of Kaua'i

OUT OF SIGHT, INTO THE LANDFILL

For more than 50 years, all of the island’s trash had been trucked out west to the island’s only landfill in Kekaha.

Former garbage truck driver Keola Aki says it wasn’t until he worked in waste management that he realized how quickly the landfill was filling up.

“If you don’t have to see the impacts your decisions are making, you’re not going to realize what you’re doing,” said Aki. “The hard part is once it’s dropped at your curb or at the transfer station, it’s very rarely you’re gonna go out to Kekaha and see the mountain that’s out there.”

An aerial view of the proposed site for a new landfill in Hanamaulu. County officials are saying this site may be too costly to develop and are currently seeking alternative sites for a new landfill. The county is also considering re-opening the first phase of the Kekaha Landfill, which could potentially buy residents another 30 years of capacity.
Credit AECOM Technical Services

The Kekaha Landfill has just seven years of capacity left before authorities put a permanent lid on it. To make matters worse, contract negotiations broke down last year between the county and its long-time landfill operator, Waste Management. This prompted a county takeover of the landfill in December.

But the long-term problem is what to do when Kekaha reaches capacity?

The county is considering a new landfill closer to town on 270 acres in Hanamaulu. But Mayor Kawakami is concerned the pricetag of the proposed site would burden taxpayers. According to the county's latest estimate, the site could cost as much as $100 million dollars -- most of it for road construction.

“Just the cost of establishing a new landfill in general is extremely expensive,” said Kawakami. “In fact, any government project is expensive because [of] the amount of compliance issues that we have to go through.”

For example, he says the site’s location near the airport requires the county to comply with federal rules pertaining to safety and the environment. 

For some municipalities, like Honolulu, the color-coded cart system has proven effective in keeping waste out of the landfill. Gray carts are for trash, green carts are for greenwaste, and blue carts are for recyclables. But Kaua'i residents don't produce enough waste to justify a special sorting facility to process the waste.
Credit County of Kaua'i

WASTE DIVERSION HITS A WALL

As Kauaʻi runs out of landfill space, Fraley, the county’s solid waste chief, says trash diversion or keeping ʻōpala out of the landfill in the first place is key to island’s trash future.

“Ninety-five thousand tons is what goes to landfill. But before that, there is about 40 percent of that, which is about 50,000 tons, something like that, that is diverted,” said Fraley. “It never even ends up at the landfill. And so that's where all of our waste diversion programs come in.”

Kaua'i County provides free backyard composting bins to its residents. Households can compost food scraps, shredded paper, cardboard, and more. Home composting has been available on island for nearly 20 years and is one the county's most successful diversion programs, officials say.
Credit County of Kaua'i

Green waste is diverted at transfer stations and turned into mulch. Food waste is diverted at homes through the county’s free composting program. Local recyclers repurpose glass to be used in construction projects or landscaping. And other recyclables are exported overseas.

Fraley said waste diversion is all about convenience, economic incentive, and legislation.

“So that’s what we’re striving for, is to make our programs convenient. To have an economic incentive to divert waste, which is like the bottle deposit laws. And then also to put legislation in," says Fraley. "So at the landfill, we don’t accept green waste, metals or cardboard from commercial generators. So that’s an example of legislation.”

A colorful pile of food packaging, soda boxes, and newspapers, wait to be sorted at a Kaua'i recycling center.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

CONSCIOUS CONSUMPTION

Waste diversion efforts have had a noticeable impact. Kauaʻi’s diversion rates nearly doubled over the last two decades before plateauing about five years ago at 43 percent of the total. The only tool left in the diversion tool box is to convince residents to consider the trash generated by the products they buy.

Wailua resident Jesse Brown-Clay, project coordinator for Zero Waste Kauaʻi, said it’ll be hard to change consumer behavior. 

“We live in a society of buy, buy, buy, throw away, throw away, throw away. It’s become very convenient. It’s a very convenient culture,” said Brown-Clay. “So I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re all going to get on board with that. I think what I’m seeing is it’s probably going to take a generation or two.”

The island’s rural character and small-town culture may prove an advantage in convincing residents that things need to change. 

“Everybody knows everybody on Kauaʻi,” said Fraley. “So I mean you’re always thinking about how it’s going to impact somebody, how your decisions are impacting people.”

She said on Kauai, people can’t make a decision and hide. 

“We’re all right here,” says Fraley.

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.