Reincarnating Trash on the Big Island

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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