Rubbish or Resource? Hawaii Recycling

by Holly Fretwell

Recycling is the reuse of resources. Resources are inputs used to produce the goods and services we buy. You can reuse a bag to recycle it, or you can take it to the recycling center for remanufacturing into something else, like a fleece jacket. These two very different processes have very different costs associated. We are led to believe that recycling is paramount and necessary to maintain a ‘green’ life style. Yet, recycling uses resources, sometimes more than letting our garbage be the rubbish that it is.

On the Big Island of Hawaii land is extremely valuable, therefore landfill space is costly. Putting less in the trash makes sense. Many people reuse plastic bags (or store them in their cupboards). Others use cloth bags instead of plastic. Plastic bags also end up in the recycling bins. To motivate more recycling of cans and plastic containers, some have a deposit in Hawaii. Five cents is paid upon purchase and refunded when the container is returned.

There are no remanufacturing plants for recyclables in Hawaii because it is not cost effective. There is simply not enough of it. The recyclables must be shipped elsewhere. Many of the fibrous materials, such as cardboard and some plastics, for example, are shipped to Oregon. That is a long way. There, they are manually sorted on a conveyor belt and then remanufactured onsite or shipped elsewhere to create new products that are used in the states and Asia.

A lot of energy goes into the transport and remanufacturing of Hawaii’s rubbish: fossil fuels and manual labor. I am curious what the real environmental tradeoffs are between land filling garbage and sending it across the ocean. Recycling has become so paramount that it is rarely questioned for its own environmental impact. That is a thought to ponder.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends