KAILUA-KONA — Digging her hands into a heap of soil inside a pen at Innovations Public Charter School, garden teacher Krista Donaldson revealed a city of millipedes, roly-polies and other insects bustling about just beneath the surface.
It’s a sign that something more lively is at work than a pile of dirt. Amid the scatter of paperware and fruit or vegetable scraps that many might otherwise have had few qualms with tossing in a trash bin bound for the landfill, Donaldson sees the long game.
“It’s ridiculous to me that half of our landfill is full of potential soil makers,” Donaldson said. “But in our haste to get rid of our waste —you know, ‘Give a hoot, don’t pollute’ and then get it out of here — we don’t take the time to make more conscious choices for our discards.”
Donaldson is also a zero-waste specialist and sustainability coordinator for the Kona Brewers Festival, the source of about 60 percent of what was in the pens last week being composted for the school’s gardens.
Every year, the Kona Brewers Festival draws scores of people to the luau grounds of the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel to sample beers from across the country while also championing a model of sustainability that diverts as much of its discards away from the landfill as possible.
But it’s also a model that takes partnerships like the one it has with the charter school, making it possible for those efforts to continue long after the festival’s last beer is poured and bending what might otherwise be a straight consumer-to-landfill line into something closer to a circle.
From festival to feast
Even if it’s the suds that bring guests in, it’s hard for them to miss the festival’s focus on sustainability once they get past the gates. Bottles of dark, rich soil made from composted discards top the Zero Waste centers throughout the grounds and the event’s Trash Fashion Show, in which “trashanistas” repurpose materials into runway-worthy chic, is a famously popular part of the program.
“We’re really aware of the impact, because people fly to our island, and we really enjoy the visitor industry,” said Kate Jacobson, executive director of the Kona Brewers Festival and board member of the Ke Kai Ala Foundation, “but also know that we have a pretty precious resource here that we need to protect and educate people about.”
The end of the annual festival, Donaldson said, marks the beginning of a whole new feast for a whole different crowd.
The discards — this last festival provided about 40 bags’ worth— are loaded up and trucked to Innovations, where volunteers unload the discards into the school’s composting pens, sprinkling it with nitrogen-rich horse manure sourced from down the road.
The result is a full “bug buffet” for the hungry crowds of microorgranisms and insects at and below the surface. With the right amounts of inputs and attention, the dinner crowd sets to work, munching away on leftovers and saving heaps of material from getting shipped off to the landfill.
The fertile soil ultimately makes its way to the school’s gardens, where row after row of crops are growing, all of it touched at some point by the compost. Not only does it provide an “edible ecosystem” for the school, it’s also an outdoor learning lab beyond the four walls of a classroom.
“The kids have a natural ability to be curious and a natural desire to learn about nature,” Donaldson said.
Reduce, recycle, refuse, repurpose
The Kona Brewers Festival has always kept a minimal-waste mindset, Donaldson said. In 2008 she coordinated the implementation of zero-waste systems at the Kona Brewers Festival. That coincided with the first year the county provided recycling services.
Total zero waste, meaning absolutely 100 percent of discards from the festival is diverted from the landfill, is a goal the festival is actively working toward and one Donaldson is confident is feasible.
“We’ve gotten as good as 93 percent at the Brew Fest,” she said, crediting the festival’s success to its ability to restrict what guests bring onto the grounds, keeping materials like single-use plastics or polystyrene containers off-site.
There’s also the conscious effort to think hard on how what is brought in can be given second life.
This past year, for example, the festival recycled 250 ice bags used to chill beers at the festival to Innovations students, who were able to make use of them for produce distribution.
“And then hopefully whatever family takes that bag of veggies home upcycles it to yet another use or another use,” Jacobson said.
In many cases, reducing waste isn’t just about recycling or repurposing but outright reducing how much material is used to put on the festival.
Jacobson said they’re constantly looking for opportunities to improve every year, from doing away with paper tickets to replacing printed programs with centralized maps across the festival grounds and made available online. For next year, she added, there are plans to replace the festival’s plastic-tab wristbands with a punchcard system, eliminating that much more plastic from the festival.
“So every year we try and identify like, how can we do this without creating a negative impact?” she said.
In the coming months, the circle will widen further when students use the school’s crops to help feed a crew from Na Kalai Waa as they navigate from this island to Mokumanamana, part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The voyage, set to start in June, will take the voyaging canoe Makalii from Kawaihae throughout the main Hawaiian islands and then go from Oahu to Mokumanamana, said Na Kalai Waa program coordinator Kealii Bertelmann. A goal of that voyage is to provision it entirely with food grown on Hawaii Island by partnering with schools and community groups with their own gardens.
Donaldson said Innovations will contribute a lima bean soup, a pigeon pea chili and dried fruit.
By including students in this part of the voyage, Bertelmann said, he hopes it helps them understand that they have a role to play in the voyage.
“And just because they’re not on the canoe taking the canoe to where she’s going to go up to Mokumanamana, that they had a hand in being a part of the success of the voyage,” he said. “Because we cannot do what we do without the support from the community.”
Jacobson, on hearing about the school’s involvement in the upcoming voyage, said she loves seeing the positive impact the festival’s mission has and partnerships for which it provides an opportunity.
“It’s providing like a synergy, a reason for people to get together, know their neighbors and even if they don’t know where that soil came from or how it came about,” she said. “Often times when we do action, we don’t know the ripple effect.”
And creating that awareness and creating opportunities for people to find potential partnerships in the community, Donaldson said, is a foundational part of that — it’s hopeful, she said, and people need hope.
“We need simple strategies,” she said. “It makes people feel good, and it feels good to do good work. And then more good work happens.”