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Compost facility on hold: Green waste, food scrap shortage could spell doom to $10.5M plant

A $10.5 million facility intended to take green waste and mix it with other materials to make compost is on hold after officials discovered they’re missing a critical ingredient — food waste to make the material cook to the high temperature needed in the composting process.

The county’s contract with Hawaiian Earth Recycling, inked just days before Mayor Harry Kim took office in 2016, will now wait for a new administration to work out details about how a compost facility could fit into the county’s solid waste plans. The plan is currently on hold after the county and the contractor signed a six-month “act of god” abeyance because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The county and HER jointly and together came to the conclusion to suspend phase 2, building the compost facility, until such time we can address the issue,” Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski said.

But the shortage of food waste goes beyond the temporary stoppage of hotels, restaurants and schools that were slated to provide it. Hog farmers have been saying for more than a decade that they hold contracts for the food waste produced from those sources as an essential component of raising their product.

That shouldn’t be news to the county, Environmental Management Commissioner Jon Olson said Wednesday. He said pig farmers addressed the Solid Waste Advisory Committee on the issue back in 2002 when he was on the committee. Pig farmers also made that point to the 2019 Solid Waste Advisory Committee.

“We were told back then we weren’t going to get hold of the food waste because it was already spoken for,” Olson said. “It’s a little frustrating. … This is deja vu all over again. … This has all been covered.”

Kucharski said there’s a shortage of another component in the compost mix, the green waste that’s brought to county disposal sites and is then ground up for mulch that’s offered for free or for a reduced loading cost to residents. He said 100% of it is quickly scarfed up by residents on both sides of the island.

“This is not as simple and straightforward as it appears,” Kucharski said. “When the precursor material has a bigger demand than supply and we don’t have a critical ingredient, we have to ask is this the right way to do it.”

In addition to the cost of building the facility and leasing land at W.H. Shipman Business Park in Keaau to house it, the county is slated to pay $3.8 million annually to the contractor for processing the waste, while the contractor gets to sell the resulting compost. That figure, combined with personnel and trucking costs to move the green waste around, consumes 11% of the county’s solid waste budget and 60% of its recycling budget, Kucharski said. The Shipman lease hasn’t been executed yet.

Members of the Environmental Management Commission on Wednesday saw the halt of the contract as a way to reevaluate the compost plan, especially after hearing from constituents who say small local compost facilities would serve the whole island better than one large facility in East Hawaii. The commission plans to bring experts in for presentations at its meeting next month.

“Maybe its about re-imagining this composting facility,” said Commissioner Melissa Cardwell. “From the beginning, I thought that was a flawed plan.”

Commission Chairman Justin Pequeno said the COVID-19 crisis does contain some silver linings.

“This gives us the opportunity to reflect and re-imagine what composting looks like,” Pequeno said. “We do have this opportunity to look at composting a different way.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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