Glass trash mounts as city slashes recycling subsidy

Nearly 100 tons of glass a week on Oahu could be heading to the trash heap, in what could be the biggest setback since recycling programs in Hawaii began.

While the HI-5 program deals with recycling the typical beer bottles and aluminum cans, a different system subsidizes recycling of other glass bottles and containers, mostly wine, champagne & spirits. Big-bottle buyers were in for a shock for what’s now happening with those.

“They just came to us and had a letter and said starting June 1st they weren’t going to take any more nondeposit bottles,” Murphy’s Bar & Grill proprietor Don Murphy said, referring to the company that comes to pick up his restaurant’s recyclables.

It turns out the City and County of Honolulu is slashing a subsidy to recyclers that is funded by what’s called the advance deposit fee or ADF, and as a result of the cutback, recyclers can’t afford to do the job of taking in and shipping out the bottles and jars.

“The glass material itself is no different than the (H1-5) deposit glass material,” explained Bruce Iverson of Reynolds Recycling, “but because of the way the pricing is structured we can’t afford to touch it, so it’s silly.”

That means about 100 tons a week of glass — nearly the weight of a 757 airplane — will hit the waste stream instead of getting picked up from bars and restaurants or getting redeemed by consumers.

And now since recyclers won’t take the bottles, city officials have suspended a law that requires businesses like bars and restaurants to recycle them.

“That means it can go in their normal trash, go to H-power, be handled at H-power,” said Tim Hougton, deputy director of the city Department of Environmental Services, “so it will get taken care of; it won’t just get put in the landfill.”

The state’s Department of Health disagrees.

“It doesn’t get burned, the (H-power) temperature does not get hot enough, all you do is melt the glass anyway,” said Steven Chang, head of the Health Department’s Solid & Hazardous Waste Branch. “It becomes a residue that goes to the landfill.”

Before the setback, under 40 tons a week of these kinds of bottles got recycled through the blue-bin curbside recycling process. The city hopes more will find their way to the curb where their contractor will continue to recycle it from there.

“If they end up collecting more wine bottles because we’re putting more at our curb instead of taking them in for redemption, wouldn’t the city end up paying more for the contractor to do that?” KHON2 asked the city.

“Certainly if there is more glass coming into our system to go to our recycler, yes we would pay more for that volume,” Houghton said.

Meanwhile bottle importers will still have to keep paying a 1.5-cent-per-pound advance deposit fee to the state, and the state will keep giving that to the counties — whether or not they’re recycling.

“Because the law simply stipulates that we collect this money and we distribute to the counties,” Chang explaind.

KHON2 asked the city what they’ll do with the money.

“Once we have enough money,” Houghton said, “we will be able to perhaps raise the subsidy rates, which could bring recyclers back into the market.”

But even then, the city and state agree it won’t be sustainable long term.

“The only thing is to increase the handling fee of those heavy containers to reflect the true cost of recycling them.”

That could be something like 10 cents per wine bottle, 20 cents for heavier champagne — an enormous jump in fees that has met death at the legislature every time the state Health Department has tried to get a hike. This coming tsunami of glass may be the wake up call.

“I think you’ve really got to look at it in the legislative process,” Houghton said, “because you’ve got to have a vehicle that can pay for the cost of recycling.”

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