Blue Hawaii

NEWARK, N.J.-BASED Hugo Neu Schnitzer East (HNSE) is an unlikely hero. The company came to New York City's rescue by helping the Big Apple get back into the recycling game.

A year ago, the city's Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that to meet budget constraints, plastic and glass recycling would cease. Then, the sanitation department laid-off workers, and some neighborhoods faced collection cutbacks. But by offering an attractive recycling contract in which New York will be paid for its metals and plastics, HNSE will allow the city to resume recycling and restore collections by 2004.

Budgetary decisions have changed the waste collection rules so many times that New Yorkers are suffering from whiplash. Yet by doing away with desirable city services, Bloomberg allowed others to develop cost-effective options to fill the void.

After finding a company that would turn glass into garden items and construction materials, HNSE decided to collect the commodity. So, although some solid waste departments have been struggling to maintain their recycling programs and garbage collection service levels in light of budget cuts, this ironically could be positive for the industry — if the process pushes people to think more about the entire waste disposal system.

“The environmental community has a responsibility to work with the city to put in place the most environmentally friendly and yet economically sustainable solid waste disposal system,” Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, commented in The New York Times.

Such rhetoric might be ahead of its time, especially when communities don't understand the benefits and costs of waste management. Because the Honolulu City Council didn't see the need for recycling and residents never see a garbage bill, the council recently rejected a proposal to add green waste and recyclables curbside collection alternating once per week and to reduce MSW collection from twice to once a week. (Residents who need a second MSW pickup could pay an additional $8 per month for the service.) Adding to the illusion that residents don't already pay for garbage services, Councilwoman Barbara Marshall said, “We cannot charge people to pick up the trash,” when she voted down the proposal.

When solid waste services run smoothly, it's easy to forget about trash. But just like New Yorkers, Honolulu residents need to accept responsibility for — and become aware of — their waste issues.

The same month Honolulu's recycling proposal was nixed, the local landfill only had about six weeks of remaining capacity. Eventually, five years of landfill capacity were added. But if local residents and politicos continue to fail to see their solid waste system beyond what's in their individual garbage pails, Hawaii really will feel blue.

The author is the editor of Waste Age