Where Is Your Waste Going?

6a00d8341d758b53ef0133ee4b4a6c970bLocally, one of the most pervasive topics that circulate the public sphere is the handling of waste in Hawaii. In particular, the federal government recently filed a lawsuit against Waste Management of Hawaii Inc. Although headlines in the news suggests that Waste Management of Hawaii is at fault and should be held accountable for the spilled waste in 2010 and 2011, I have found many of their statements to be unjustified and incomplete. One of the reasons for this lies in the fact that many of the issues they discuss are no longer relevant, and have already been resolved. While conducting research on this issue, contrary to what news outlets have been saying, I have found that Waste Management of Hawaii has instigated numerous proposals for alternative uses of waste. In light of this, rather than persecute Waste Management of Hawaii, the federal government should be supporting them.

The current lawsuit against Waste Management of Hawaii Inc, is just one particular instance in which bad waste management control is being addressed.  This charge against Waste Management of Hawaii Inc. and two of its managers, Vice President Joe Whelan and Environmental Manager Justin Lottig, follows the major waste spillage event that occurred during the heavy rains of December 2010 and January 2011. Both men are accused of violating the federal Clean Water Act and lying to state and federal officers regarding the details of the event. The torrential downpour, which occurred during the three large rainstorms, brought around 30 inches of rain to the gulch landfill. On December 19, 2010, the rainfall mixed with raw sewage and medical waste. The January 12, 2011 rainstorm affected tons of solid waste cells and mixed with blood vials, syringes, catheters and raw sewage. During this period millions of gallons of contaminated water and medical waste were taken from the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill and dragged into the ocean. These pollutants eventually washed up on the Leeward-side Oahu beach coasts and the Ko Olina Resort. The grand jury claims that during the spill, a manhole was left open to serve as an overflow drain, which allowed waste to enter the ocean. The indictment also stated that the company engineer told the State Heath Department that the manhole had been closed even though he knew it hadn’t been.  However, the company insists that there is no basis for the charges. Lyle Hosoda, Lottig’s attorney, stated that “charging an employee with crimes for simply going to work and exercising his best efforts and judgment to try to manage and prevent further damage and disaster in the face of an unprecedented amount of storm water is revolting”.

On the surface, Waste Management of Hawaii Inc. appears to be the guilty party. However, the company earnestly endeavored to prevent the runoff from flowing into the Kahe Power Plant, the state’s largest energy producer. Additionally the rainstorms hit a few weeks before Waste Management completed its construction of a $15 million storm water dam and diversion system. Since then, the system has been up and running, as mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is, however, unlikely that heavy rainfall will cause the same issues again. Furthermore, on average, the landfill encounters 12 to 15 inches of rain in a year, yet during the January floods, almost 11 inches flooded the area, an unnatural and uncommon event. It is also comforting to hear that the medical waste has been treated and the spillage of waste has not contaminated nor damaged the coral. In light of the circumstances, it seems unfair to impose 13 criminal charges against the company and the two managers. In retrospect, the company and its managers were trying to make the best of a disastrous situation.

One of the reasons why solid waste is such a huge issue on Oahu is due to its abundance here on the islands, causing congestion in landfills. The primary reason is because Oahu only has two areas available for landfill, the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill and the Nanakili landfill. Adding to this shortage of space is the fact that the Nanakili landfill is only used for construction and demolition waste, as determined by the Office of Solid Waste Management Department of Health (HAR 11-58.1). The Waimanalo Gulch Landfill is owned by the city and operated by Waste Management. This is a place where the materials that cannot be recycled or used as fuel are often stored. Due to the shortage of land available to use for landfill, it is crucial that the community focuses on minimizing the use of landfill for waste disposal. Despite the abundance of waste that the population of Oahu generates, the City has done a phenomenal job with waste management; yet, there exists possible alternatives to landfills.

Annually, approximately 1.5 million tons of solid waste is generated on Oahu. In 2008 the amount was much higher, about 1.8 million tons. While these numbers are staggering, more than 70% of Oahu’s municipal solid waste is either recycled or turned into usable energy. This helps to reduce the amount of overall waste generated and decreases the amount going into landfills. Since 1988, a collection or recycling data indicates that the amount of materials that are recycled has dramatically increased. In 1988, only 75,000 tons of waste was used for recycling but today more than 400,000 tons are recycled. The initiative to recycle construction and demolition materials such as concrete, rock and asphalt has also added between 100,000 to 200,000 tons of material to the recycling rate. Furthermore, there has been a general decline in total waste generation since the data collected in 2008.

Overall, Oahu has done a great job at maintaining minimal amount of landfill waste since the recycling rate is above the national average, and Honolulu is ranked as one of the top cities in landfill diversion. Homeowners can contribute to recycling initiatives by sorting their trash, as about 15% of it can be reused.  Local offices also recycle paper, which can composes up to 85% of their total waste. In retail, cardboard can be recycled, and restaurants can often salvage glass and food waste. Some of the non-recyclable material has been sequestered and turned into energy. Since 1990, a facility called “Honolulu Program of Waste Energy Recovery” also known as H-Power in Campbell Industrial Park has been processing over 600,000 tons of waste annually, which accounts for 7% of Oahu’s electricity. The city has also pushed for separation of reusable items from refuse trashcans. The refuse service, which used to pick up garbage twice a week, was reduced to once a week after the curbside-recycling program started. To make up for this loss, there have been new alternating schedules for pickup of both green waste and mixed recycling. Significant advancements have been made with regards to how much waste actually ends up in landfills, but there still remains more that can be done with waste found in landfills.

Waste Management is a lead innovator in new recycling techniques; they have made diesel fuel and wax from gas captured at an Oklahoma Landfill. The company also uses various methods to turn garbage into energy. As a whole Waste Management generates 9.8 GW of power nationally through the waste to energy projects and through harvesting landfill gasses. This is almost equivalent to the 10 GW of power the nation’s entire solar industry produces. Nationwide Waste Management has around 130 energy investments and by 2020 they plan to generate enough energy to power 2 million US homes from its current 1.2 million. They have also started on a viable anaerobic digestion facility that will reduce 11,200 tons of food into more than 100,000 diesel equivalent gallons per year.

In May 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a plan to ship up to 100,000 tons of solid waste to the mainland. Before the plan could be put into action, however, the Hawaiian Department of Health fined Hawaiian Waste Systems over $40,000 for storing 20,000 tons of waste without industrial park permits. This fine was not only unnecessary, but also unfair, for Hawaiian Waste Management was not responsible for the delay. This waste, in the form of plastic-wrapped garbage bales, was to be sent to a landfill near an Indian reservation in Washington State. However, after the tribe protested and won a court ruling, the plan to shift the trash from Oahu to Washington has been put on hold until further notice. The tribe reasoned that, due to the landfill’s close proximity to the Columbia River, rodents, insects, and other invasive species could affect the waterway. However, Hawaiian Waste System President Mike Chutz insisted that the bales had nothing ecologically dangerous as the plastic wrapping deprived any organism trapped inside the bales from oxygen. The state of Oahu simply cannot afford to hold on to any more solid waste. Instead of buying land or targeting cases, which date several years back, Government funds should be used to focus on developing new recycling tools.

Although there have been cases where sewage and trash had spilled into the ocean the practices of Waste Management of Hawaii have been generally sanitary. Rather than point fingers at a company that has conducted itself both ethically and respectfully in disposing, reducing, and recycling waste, the State of Hawaii should focus on investing in further developing techniques to reduce solid waste. Waste Management should not be continually penalized for a mistake that had happened over three years ago; if the rains had come only a few weeks later, there would have been no issue at stake. Criminal charges should not be unfairly placed on Waste Management’s workers. Instead, the state should learn from past instances of waste spillage, and integrate new technologies reuse solid waste and help to save the environment. The problem at hand is not one that is criminal, but rather one that is inherent in a society that puts nearly a million people on the most isolated island in the world. Rather than using Waste Management as a scapegoat for Hawaii’s waste issues, it is important that we all appreciate what they have done in past years, and continue to support their endeavors to improve upon the management of Hawaii’s waste.

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One Comment to “Where Is Your Waste Going?”

  1. I read this piece of writing completely regarding the difference of most recent and previous technologies, it’s awesome
    article.

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