Throwing Away Our Future

Mar 18, 2008 by James Koshiba | Story Popularity: 6

The current discussion about waste focuses on our overflowing landfills, incinerators, shipping our trash out-of-state, and (to a lesser extent) recycling.  We have some immediate decisions to make, and they deserve our attention. But we're so caught up thinking about the end of the waste stream-disposal-that we haven't stopped to ask how we got here in the first place. A look upstream-to where our waste begins and how much of it we produce-offers a different perspective on our waste problem and how we might solve it in the long run.

For a small island community, we generate a huge amount of trash-about 2.6 million tons annually, or more than 10 pounds of waste per resident, per day. On a per-resident basis, we produce about twice the waste of the average American, and three times more than the average European.

The reasons for our super-sized trash figures are fairly well understood:

  1. Visitor Waste. We have a much higher number of visitors than most places, adding about 15% to our population (and its waste) on any given day of the year. 
  2. Packaging Waste. We are heavily dependent on imports, shipping-in 20 million tons of products. These products are often packaged by manufacturers using cardboard, paper, and plastic, then transported with wood palates, shrink wrap, and styrofoam, much of which ends up in our waste stream.
  3. Construction Waste. The recent building boom and resulting waste contribute to high volume.  Exactly how much is difficult to determine since County practices for handling it differ, but a recent Kohala Center study puts the figure at 15% for Hawaii Island.  This is also in line with estimates for Oahu.
  4. Household Diversion. We can do better at "diverting" waste (i.e., reusing and recycling). Our current diversion rate of just over 30% falls far short of statewide goals we set in the 1990s. Some states have pushed recycling rates to 50% or more and Japan's recycling rate exceeds 70%.

In addition to producing more than other places, our waste has also been growing faster. The EPA reports that between 1990 and 2006, municipal solid waste generation grew 22% across the U.S., but an astounding 105% in Hawaii.

These facts point to a need to redefine the goals of waste management from disposal to reduction. Even our focus on recycling, though admirable, can be misleading: Our diversion rate (recycling and reuse) is on par with the national average, but because we generate so much more waste to begin with, we still end up sending more to our landfills per capita than other states. Hawaii's State and County solid waste management plans all set goals for recycling. None have goals for waste reduction.

If we were to redefine the aim of waste management as waste reduction, an ambitious short term goal might be to cut our daily waste-per-person from 10 lbs to 5 lbs within the next five years. This would put us in line with the rest of the U.S. In setting a long-term goal, we might follow the lead of our island cousins in New Zealand (and dozens of other nations and municipalities), where the official goal is zero waste by the year 2020. Whatever the specific measure, our long term success should be measured by the amount of waste produced, rather than a high rate of recycling or cheap disposal of what remains. 


In pursuing a minimum waste goal, we can start with ourselves and lead by example. A variety of personal actions can contribute including: carrying re-usable shopping bags, lunch containers and coffee mugs, refusing receipts at the ATM or gas pump, getting off of junk mail lists, using biodegradable picnic ware, and many other commitments. Consciously buying products with less packaging can also help. These small actions, taken at society-wide scale would substantially shrink our waste stream. Just as important, visibly modeling this approach for others challenges the prevailing "throw away" mentality and begins a shift in thinking that will be needed to enable other lasting change. [related]

This doesn't mean we should ignore recycling. On the contrary, we must work to steadily improve diversion of our trash. In 2006, Oahu alone threw away 9,100 tons of redeemable containers-an estimated 245 million bottles and cans worth  $12.2 million in redemptions. Those of us that live on Oahu literally threw away more than $1 million per month. We must also begin to think of construction waste, food and paper (including cardboard, newspaper, and printer paper) as recyclables. Food and paper comprise 40% of everything we throw away and they are amongst the easiest items to repurpose. Composting represents a large, untapped opportunity for waste diversion. And a few organizations have also begun to tackle the recycling of construction waste, notably, Reuse Hawaii.

Our personal steps can take us a good distance, but we will need the help of our businesses and government to take us the rest of the way. We can use the current, heightened state of public concern to fuel some long-term commitments to waste reduction instead of just dealing with disposal. Focusing on a handful of areas would help us move toward an ambitious reduction goal.

  • Urge Manufacturers to Take Responsibility. With our high dependence on imported goods, we should work with manufacturers to reduce product and packaging waste. At present, local governments and taxpayers provide a "waste subsidy" to manufacturers – paying for the disposal costs and environmental risks posed by waste-intensive products and packaging. We should urge manufacturers to assume a fair share of these costs, and provide incentives to "design the waste out" so that products and packaging can be reused or recycled.  Many major manufacturers have voluntarily re-engineered their products and packaging, cutting both their environmental impact and production costs.  Several countries and municipalities have adopted "producer responsibility" policies. Some communities now recycle more than 75% of their packaging and have reduced daily generation to 3 lbs per person.
  • Urge our governments to take away the incentive to landfill. Manufacturers aren't the only ones who benefit from a "waste subsidy"-all of us avoid paying the true cost of the waste we produce because we're charged an artificially low, flat fee (through taxes) for household disposal, encouraging waste. We should ask our local governments to adopt a "pay as you throw" approach to disposal instead, charging us by the bag, container, or pound. Pay-as-you-throw makes waste like any other utility, with rates depending on the amount used.  The policy has proven highly effective across the country. Hawaii and Mississippi are the only two states in the nation without a single pay-as-you-throw program.
  • Urge Local Waste-Intensive Businesses to be Proactive. In addition to "source reduction" we should also ask waste-intensive local businesses to accept greater responsibility for the waste they produce. Here, efforts might focus on industries that contribute disproportionately to the waste stream-our retail, visitor and construction industries, for example-urging greater responsibility for minimizing or diverting their contribution to the waste stream. Government can help by getting retailers to collect recycled equipment or packaging, and getting hotels and developers to integrate "green building" practices that minimize construction waste and maximize recycling.  

Though we should focus on waste generation, two aspects of disposal deserve brief mention. First, the proposal to ship our trash elsewhere is unacceptable as a permanent solution to Hawaii's waste problem. Shipping trash out is an affront to basic island values of stewardship and kuleana, not to mention childhood lessons like "clean up your own mess." Exporting our opala would send the wrong message to the rest of the world about our island character and priorities:  How can we complain about cruise ships and ferries coming to our shores, but send shipfuls of trash to other communities? How can we ask visitors and newcomers to respect our islands, but send garbage to the places they hail from? Preserving the beauty of these islands-and the integrity of our island culture-requires that we hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Second, confronting disposal also offers an important reminder that the trash which is a momentary inconvenience for most of us becomes a permanent blight for some of us. Our current waste system creates personal comfort and convenience for a vast majority of our residents, and enables the smooth operation of businesses and government agencies, regardless of how much or how little we contribute to the waste stream. The price for this comfort is paid by taxpayer dollars and tipping fees, but it is also paid by the suffering of a handful of communities. Those communities that house landfills, transfer stations, incinerators and other waste facilities are bearing an extraordinary burden for the rest of us, and they are often communities already under considerable economic and social strain. We are all, to varying degrees, contributors to this social injustice.

Whatever solutions we settle on, we should remind ourselves that we have it in us to do better than we are doing. We have a tradition of stewardship and resource management, rooted in our indigenous culture. We have aunties and uncles, tutus and popos who spent their lives mending, repairing, saving, reusing, and throwing nothing away. We have cousins, co-workers and acquaintances that live with the sight and smell of landfills. In short, we have a mind for conservation, a habit of thrift, and a connection to each other that give us more wisdom and incentive to tackle waste than other peoples. Let us build upon these strengths, start with ourselves, enlist the help of our businesses and governments, and offer the world an island solution to this ageless global problem.


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  1. Stacy Hirano says:

    Thank you for the info. I didn't realize that our waste in Hawaii was so out of line with other states and countries. One way I have found to reduce waste is to buy from the bulk bins in the natural foods stores. You bring your own container, take it to the check out stand and have them record the weight of the container on your container before you refill it. When you check out, they subtract the recorded weight of the container from the total weight. I buy powdered and liquid cleaners as well as grains, nuts, seeds, cereals, and snacks this way. Perhaps if we got enough people involved, we could get some of the mainstream supermarkets to offer the same service.

  2. Great article James, thank you for helping to draw out the big picture. I can't believe i didn't stumble upon this blog until now:) i'd love to update and re-circulate another piece in conjunction with a possible 'waste management' campaign idea. I'll add it to the to do list. Has anyone seen 'Story of Stuff'?:

  3. Russell Hart says:

    Very informative and eye opening piece James. I 'knew' we generated more waste than other states and countries, based on casual observance, but not the degree. Your piece eloquently presents the urgent necessity for waste reduction. I hope the Kanu Hawaii waste challenge succeeds in its goal of cutting 50,000 lbs from the landfill in the immediate term. In the longterm - as you have already articulated - we have to push vigorously for public policy changes that cut waste production and incentivize (rather than penalize) waste reduction.
    Mahalo nui loa.

  4. One thing that is very large and will completely change the amount of waste produced here on O`ahu is all the construction waste from the rail project, and the waste produced by the influx of new residents -workers and their families- who will be moving here.

    Additionally, there is a move to add more military personnel and projects here with the the U.S. shifting it's military priorities to the Pacific Rim.

    These are game changers that I'm not hearing any discussion about.

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