Council panel to hear recycling update

  • Debi McGuire empties her recyclables in the mix bin at the Kealakehe Recycle Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A variety of accepted and unaccepted recycle material is found in a bin at the Kealakehe center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • The two bin system at the Kealakehe Transfer Station recycle center lists the types of materials accepted. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A sign at the Kealakehe transfer station recycle bin lists items not accepted. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Cutbacks to the county’s recycling program have raised concerns throughout the island, and a County Council panel is set to hear about alternatives when it meets today.

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder has asked Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski to brief the Agriculture, Water, Energy and Environmental Management Committee when it meets at 1 p.m. in Hilo council chambers.

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“My concerns are we’re going backwards,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “We are worried about climate change and landfill use. Yet we are unable to recycle materials that can be separated from the waste stream. We are not making decisions that benefit our grandchildren.”

Starting Wednesday, only corrugated cardboard, paper shopping bags and non-HI-5 glass products will be accepted at the bins at county transfer stations. The county will continue to redeem HI-5 beverage containers, and some transfer stations will accept metal cans in their scrap metal disposal sites. Any other waste — including all plastic products — will have to be disposed of somewhere else.

The problem, Kucharski said, is the county’s contractor, Business Services Hawaii, has stated it cannot afford to continue its $1.1 million annual contract at the current rate because most markets for the recycled material, especially in China, have dried up.

The company gets some of its income from the county, but the rest of the cost of picking up recyclables, sorting, preparing them for market and shipping them comes from selling the materials.

Telephone messages left with Business Services Hawaii were not returned by press time Monday.

What started as a $484,030 contract in 2007 was extended by $4.7 million over the ensuing six years, and now stands at $1.1 million annually.

The cost of dealing with the island’s waste stream has continued to rise. Even with a 36.4% increase in hauler’s tipping fees at the landfill over five years, a big chunk, $19.9 million of the $32.9 million solid waste fund, comes from the general fund, primarily supported by property taxes.

The county could probably continue the program by pumping more money into it. The county of Kauai, for example, opted to cover more of the costs when it renegotiated its contract with its recycling hauler early last year.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” said Allison Fraley, Kauai’s solid waste program coordinator. “It’s always fluctuated, (but) this is the most devastating market change that ever happened.”

Kucharski said putting out a new request for proposals is one option he’ll probably include in his presentation to the committee. Historically, Business Services Hawaii is the only company that bids on the service, however.

And with the cost of recycling the materials running about 50% higher than the cost of landfilling, there’s only so much the county can afford, he said.

“Everybody is willing for the county to spend more money until the bill comes due,” Kucharski said.

The bill, in a budget that he’s trying to hold steady, can come in the form of reduced services elsewhere and not just in dollars, he said.

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“It’s a zero sum game. There are not unlimited resources available to us,” Kucharski said. “Where do we do less? My job is to do what’s necessary to maintain the status quo — what will have a greater impact on human health and the environment?”

The amount of extensions to the county’s mixed recycling contract was misstated in an earlier version of this article and has been corrected.

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