Reincarnating Trash on the Big Island

Although not a fact advertised prominently in Hawaiian tourist brochures, the island of Oahu has a trash problem. The scenic island, renowned for its lush and varied ecosystems and such popular destinations as Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor, is home to approximately one million Honolulu residents and some five million visitors each year. Yet it has only one large landfill and one waste management plant. Both are now at capacity. Local officials are exploring the possibility of exporting Hawaii’s trash, bound in plastic and loaded on barges, at great expense, to Washington state.

Perhaps, though, rubbish problem is not quite right. To Marian Chertow, Ph.D. ’00, associate professor of industrial environmental management at F&ES, one man’s trash is another man’s raw material. She is fond of asking, “Why waste waste?” While most visitors to Oahu first trek to the beach or hike up a volcano on research expeditions, Chertow typically bypasses such picturesque locales and heads straight for a nondescript industrial park, where she believes something “magical” is happening.

Industrial ecology, an emerging field of study, may sound like an oxymoron, but it views urban landscapes much like scientists view natural ecosystems. “It is a funny use of two words,” Chertow explains. “We usually think of industry as opposed to ecology.” But she’s quick to explain the poetry of the phrase. In her work she traces the flow of materials, water and energy through a manmade system, much the way a biologist or zoologist traces the life cycle of plants and animals through an ecosystem. In a natural system, there is a continuum of interactions based on the principles of reuse and equilibrium. Think of a chain of predators, in which a zebra munches on shrubs before being devoured by a lion. In her research, Chertow focuses on the urban jungle. She traces the pathways of steam and sludge through smokestacks and drainage pipes to ask whether output by one industrial process may, in fact, be valuable input for another.

The answer, quite often, is yes. One place to look is Oahu’s largest manufacturing complex. For reasons of economy and convenience, several facilities in Campbell Industrial Park have already begun to share and reuse waste. For instance, the main power plant started scouting for alternatives to expensive imported coal, which must be brought to Hawaii by boat. Its managers got creative. Instead of looking only at materials traditionally labeled and sold as fuel, they began to examine the range of petroleum-based products being thrown away on the island. This included used tires discarded by car rental companies, used motor oil collected at gas stations and “used activated carbon,” a compound employed by the municipal water board as part of its purification process. These companies, for their part, had the burden of paying high costs to dispose of their waste materials on the island. And so a series of deals was brokered, whereby the power plant buys these nontraditional fuel materials at a lower price than it would pay to import an equivalent amount of coal (it still uses some coal for its operation), and the companies save on landfill charges. Scientists call this form of mutually beneficial relationship, “industrial symbiosis.”

“Disciplines need to be shaken up every now and then and regrouped to deal with new problems.”
Marian Chertow, Ph.D. ’00

Practical considerations are what motivated these companies to form partnerships, but from a broader perspective, what fascinates scientists like Chertow is the vast spectrum of implications of such unconventional resource sharing and reuse. “Think about the benefits upstream and the conservation of materials,” she says, noting that thanks to such trash swapping, the Oahu power plant has already burned some 18,000 fewer tons of coal. The fact that these factories are reusing materials means that fewer minerals and metals need to be hoisted out of the ground; fewer ecosystems will be disrupted in the messy process of extraction; and there may be fewer future geopolitical skirmishes over access to resources and, perhaps one day, sea lanes. “It’s ultimately,” says Chertow, “about sustainability.”

Extend this frame of analysis beyond a single industrial complex to a city, an island, a region or even the planet. “The broader conceptual framework,” says Journal of Industrial Ecology editor Reid Lifset, “is to ask questions about waste and waste generation—why we have the stuff we throw out and then why we throw it out.” At a time of heightened global concern about resource scarcity, which is driven by rising demand and uncertainty about the impacts of climate change, the need for a better system of tracking materials use has never been more apparent.

Chertow, whose research has also taken her to Puerto Rico, China and India, emphasizes the need to think about garbage in a granular way—not just as junk, but as material flows comprising parts—and then ask who has the need for those parts. Likely someone wants exactly what someone else is selling. It’s the difference between letting boxes in an attic gather dust and separating out the piles of vintage clothes from the paperbacks, the porcelain dolls from the costume jewelry, in order to sell them on eBay.

To put into practice the principles of industrial ecology, it’s necessary to know, in a very specific way, the needs of particular companies and to have plenty of interaction between company managers, because inevitably equipment is replaced and supply chains evolve. In essence, Chertow is asking researchers, business leaders and government officials to think more creatively about what they need and where they can get it.

On the one hand, her approach and the questions it leads her to may seem unconventional. On the other hand, the underlying principles of industrial ecology are plain common sense. In tracking materials, water and energy flows, Chertow and her colleagues are doing a kind of resource accounting that is similar to what economists do when they track money on various scales (from individual households, to national stock exchanges, to global financial systems). Her analysis is, of course, more scientifically rooted, so it’s less prone to speculation and hype. And the core values make good global economic sense: conservation, moderation, reuse.

The essential question, then, for industrial ecologists is: Where do materials come from and where do they go?

The field of industrial ecology is, as Chertow puts it, “still a teenager.” A now-famous 1989 article, “Strategies for Manufacturing,” in Scientific American by Robert Frosch and Nicholas Gallopoulos first popularized the notion, then seen as largely theoretical, of industries reusing each other’s waste materials. About that same time, as fate would have it, researchers and later newspapers began to report on an obscure industrial park located near the Danish city of Kalundborg, where factories had begun to creatively repurpose waste. For instance, a pharmaceutical plant was turning its organic waste into fertilizer used by local farmers. To many, Kalundborg seemed to epitomize the principles Frosch and Gallopoulos had described. Although not necessarily the first instance of such cooperation, the town became synonymous with the emergence of the field, a sort of Plymouth Rock in the history of industrial ecology.

For her part, Marian Chertow’s interest in the fundamental questions that the discipline explores began when she got her first job out of college at a recycling company. “Most waste managers tended to look at the back end. But I realized, we have to look at the whole system. Why do we have waste in the first place and where does it come from?” She was interested not only in waste disposal, but in thinking about waste streams as a part of supply chains.

Today the academic field draws on questions and techniques from engineering, waste management, economics and other fields. “Disciplines need to be shaken up every now and then,” says Chertow, “and regrouped to deal with new problems.”

It’s no coincidence that scientists and adventurers from Charles Darwin to Jared Diamond have chosen island settings to map complicated interactions, from natural selection on the Galápagos, to the rise and fall of civilizations on Easter Island. Islands are bound and isolated systems, making natural and human supply chains easier to trace. And isolation means that change, for better or worse, can happen suddenly and dramatically.

For Chertow’s research in industrial ecology, there are few better natural laboratories than Hawaii. Not only because of the tropical scenery and friendly “alohas”—a nice reprieve from time spent tooling around industrial parks—but because there are few routes by which people, species or materials can arrive or leave. Oahu has just one major port and airport and two small airfields. This greatly simplifies the accounting aspect of Chertow’s research. It’s possible to trace almost everything—from food and fuel shipped onto the island, to its limited agricultural and manufactured exports—and so to map a fairly complete picture of resource flows.

The second reason Hawaii is an ideal research location is because the need to wisely manage resources there is so great. As Matt Hamabata, executive director of the Kohala Center, a nonprofit research organization that partners with scientists such as Chertow, puts it: “We’re the most isolated land mass in the world. What happens if the shipping lines go down?” The necessity of importing so much of what is needed to keep the island economy functioning—everything from food, to fuel, to raw materials—means that goods are both expensive and scarce. Oahu, for instance, has only a seven-day food supply. High fees associated with shipping oil and coal onto the island mean that Hawaii has the nation’s highest energy prices, curtailing options for industry and transportation. Even using the landfill is a costly luxury. “For us in Hawaii, industrial ecology is not an abstract thing,” says Hamabata. “It’s very real—extremely real.”

The fact that Oahu’s landfill is now overstuffed means that some change in material flows is inevitable. Climbing food prices and scarcity of imported fuels create further pressure points. Rising seas levels due to global warming could impact sea lanes and trading partners. The only certain thing is that the future will be different, but Hamabata says Hawaii has the opportunity to make choices. “We don’t have to be pushed into a corner, just reacting to a crisis,” says Hamabata.

This spring, Chertow will begin collaborating on an expanded study to map material flows on the Big Island and chart possible options for the future. Her hope is that innovations modeled there may become a blueprint for sustainability to export elsewhere. Hawaii is not unique in facing resource challenges, but it is, by geography, on the frontier of scarcity and change. “If you don’t recover what you have in Honolulu, you’re importing it,” she says, “and that’s getting more expensive in many ways.”

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Top of Page | Spring 2009 | environment:YALE