Incinerators Burn Local Economic Development

This is a local tale, but it is just such close-to-home decisions, multiplied across the country and around the world, that will shape the future resiliency of our societies; therein lies a lesson for us all.

A sign of evolutionary times, Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi recently cancelled the $100 million waste-to-energy incinerator project that would have replaced the island’s nearing-capacity landfill in Hilo. While three bids had been accepted as finalists for the project, the Mayor indicated that the recent 50% drop in oil prices made the project financially untenable, given the price the utility was willing to pay for power and the cost of producing the electricity (yes, strangely, the power purchase contracts were tied to the price of oil).

But the problems with the idea run deeper than this.  The financial formula for corporate-scale incinerators relies on a high volume of waste to burn; meanwhile, the stated goal of local and state sustainability plans is to reduce waste to zero through reduction, recycling, and reuse strategies.. While making energy from our waste is perhaps a half-step in the right direction, to many residents, the incineration facility, which would be the largest infrastructure facility in Hawaii County history, is clearly a remnant of old-style thinking about waste, one that presumes we’ll always have a huge pile of it to dispose of.

While voluntary recycling and green waste rates are considered above average in Hawaii compared to national standards, Hawaii County does not yet have curbside recycling, mandated commercial food waste separation, or municipal scale composting, so a significant portion of the waste stream has yet to be diverted from the landfill. And while several Hawai`i counties have implemented a retail plastic bag ban, there are many other non-recyclable plastics and materials that can’t be or are not recycled.

If the stated goal is zero waste, then we’ll need to reconsider our supply chains with fresh eyes. It seems prudent to, for example, prohibit non-compostable plastic bottles and food service items. It would also be appropriate for waste to be inspected prior to being dumped to assure that items cannot otherwise be diverted for reuse or recycling. Setting aside the financial resources that would have been allocated to an incinerator for composting facilities that create soil for agricultural use could accomplish two major sustainability goals and generate revenue to help cover its costs.

In addition, Hawai`i could invest in manufacturing facilities that transform plastics, metals, glass, tires, and paper and cardboard into reusable building, packaging, and paper materials. Currently, these items are shipped off-island to facilities on the mainland or Asia for processing, but hundreds of jobs could be created by producing items from this waste stream—in many cases, replacing items that are traditionally imported from afar.

As the most isolated group of populated islands in the world, any step that can be taken to become producers of what we need reduces our dependence on imports. Anticipated resource shortages of oil, timber, rubber, and minerals suggest that Hawai`i could improve its economic and ecological resilience by increasing local production. Not only does this minimize raw material use, but as the state with some of the highest costs in the nation for basic goods, services, and energy, it has the potential to generate significant financial incentives that reduce the cost of living by using resources as many times as possible. The longer resources and capital stay in Hawai`i, the more jobs and community benefits are possible prior to eventual capital leakage off island. Increasing this capital multiplier effect is a well-proven national strategy for local economic development, an approach desperately needed in a state economy so dependent on tourism, government, and agriculture.

In the past five years, Hawai`i has focused attention and capital investment on local food and renewable energy production as critical components towards self-sufficiency. The incinerator was, to some degree, part of this initiative. However, food and energy production need to be clean so as not to harm local communities and Hawaii’s fragile ecosystem. Concerns that westerly tradewinds that would carry emissions over communities islandwide spurred public pressure to cancel the proposed incinerator in 2008, and citizens again mounted a campaign in 2014 when the idea resurfaced.

Producing and buying local must be done, but not at the expense of poisoning the soil, water, fish, and air. While it appears that low oil prices ultimately swayed the decision, it really shouldn’t have depended on that. A true commitment to sustainability makes waste incineration obsolete.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of the Natural Investment News

Michael Kramer

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