KAILUA-KONA — The recent changes to the county’s recycling program have left many with the question: what now?
Big Island residents looked for the answer at a community forum Friday night at the West Hawaii Civic Center.
The county has yet to create an immediate solution to what to do with the plastic and paper no longer being accepted by the recycling program. Most of the responsibility to protect the environment from waste now falls on the individuals themselves, by switching to compostable, or plant-based, products and biodegradable products over plastic.
“Short term, there is nothing we (the county) can do about plastics and plastics recycling,” said Bill Kucharski, director of the Department of Environmental Management. “There’s nothing. I have no idea what to do. In the long term, we have to come up with a good, conclusive end point that gives us a positive return.
“We have to take a look at processes that have minimum impact on the environment and much smaller carbon footprint than what we were doing before and other alternatives.”
On Oct. 16, the county’s two-bin recycling program downsized and began accepting only corrugated cardboard, brown paper bags, and glass bottles and jars.
Before that date, the two-bin recycling program included a bin for recycling of paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum and tin, and a bin for non-HI-5 glass.
Private recycling companies on the island are still accepting HI-5 glass, plastic and aluminum containers.
Kucharski said every day on the Big Island, about 360,000 pounds of paper and about 134,000 pounds of plastic goes to the landfill. He said this highlights how big the issue of recycling really is.
“We need to make those decisions in our daily life to choose renewable over finite whenever possible,” said Elizabeth Elkjer, director of marketing at Sustainable Island Products.
Along with Kucharski and Elkjer on the forum’s panel was District 6 Rep. Nicole Lowen. When asked about the lack of county council members at Friday’s forum, the audience was told that county councilman Tim Richards was invited to the forum, but could not attend as he was away from the island on a trip.
Kucharski and Lowen both said the positive side to the recycling changes is that the county’s plastic products will no longer be shipped to Asia, where the outcome of the plastic is out of the county’s hands.
“If there is one takeaway from it, it has sort of forced us to confront our problems,” Lowen said. “Because I think what a lot of times what people don’t realize is, while we feel good about ourselves for recycling, a lot of the recycling programs we have in place are not better than just throwing things in the landfill, when you look at the life cycle.
“If we’re just shipping things out of state to Asia, we’re not asking those countries to be accountable for how they manage that practice, and this has forced us to confront this problem, and not sweep it under the rug.”
When it comes to recycling paper, a compost facility will open next year on the island that will be able to take paper and turn it into compost.
Lowen also said she wants to see companies take responsibility for the amount of waste they contribute to the landfills.
“One thing I would like to see nationally is to have extended producer and manufacturer responsibility,” Lowen said. “So when these companies, Coca-Cola or Johnson &Johnson, companies produce products they put it in plastic, they sell it to customers, they make a bunch of money and then they saddle tax payers with getting rid of the trash.”
Kucharski said “there are new technologies coming out every day,” and plastic recycling could return to the Big Island in the future.
“The county does the best they can with the resources they have available. I will be the last person to say that no mistakes have been made, ” Kucharski said. “And it is through these concerns and it is through expressing the desire to make things better that we will move to make changes.”