HONOLULU – With sugar cane and pineapples fading, Hawaii's next big export to the U.S. mainland could be less sweet — 100,000 tons of trash a year.
In one of the most ambitious municipal disposal plans yet, Oahu, Hawaii's most populous island, is looking to send some of its garbage on a 2,600-mile voyage to the West Coast.
With 900,000 residents and close to five times as many tourists each year, Oahu is running out of landfill space. And neighbors on other Hawaiian islands say they have enough garbage of their own, thank you very much.
Some Oahu residents see the export of trash as running counter to the benevolent "aloha spirit." They point out that Hawaii restricts agricultural goods coming in or going out, with rigorous airport inspections, but now wants to put mountains of garbage on oceangoing barges.
"That's certainly not the type of aloha we need to send to the mainland," said Jeff Mikulina, Sierra Club-Hawaii director. "It's our responsibility to take care of that here at home."
Several mainland municipalities, from New York City to Anchorage, Alaska, have been exporting trash for years, and the practice is on the rise.
For all its natural beauty — spectacular mountains, volcanic-sand beaches, and a delightful floral scent that rides on the gentle sea breezes — Oahu produces an awful lot of garbage: 10 pounds per resident a day, compared with a national average of 4.5, according to Russell Nanod of Waste Management, the company that operates the sole municipal landfill.
This may be because of the millions of tourists visiting each year, or because nearly everything from fresh vegetables to construction materials has to be shipped to the islands, requiring a lot of packaging that ultimately ends up in the trash.
The most urban of the seven populated Hawaiian Islands, Oahu has dozens of high-rises, the military base at Pearl Harbor and Hawaii's biggest city, Honolulu. It generates nearly 1.8 million tons of trash per year, and about 500,000 tons of that is buried in the municipal landfill. At that rate, the 200-acre landfill will be at capacity within 15 years.
The Honolulu City Council, which governs all of Oahu, wants to hire a company to haul some of it away. One bidder is proposing to take the trash across the Pacific, sail it up the Columbia River and deliver to the biggest landfill in Washington state.
The planned 100,000 tons a year is only about 6 percent of the island's trash.
"It's a Band-Aid on a bullet hole," said John Guinan of the Trash Man Hawaii, a garbage hauling company. "But we don't really have much of an alternative at this point." At the same time, he warned: "I guess it's a good idea until the barge tips over and we'll have a massive spill in the South Pacific."
Honolulu officials say that if the barge were to sink, it would pose little danger to the environment because the garbage would be compacted, baled and wrapped in four airtight layers of plastic.
Joe Casalini, business development director for the Roosevelt Regional Landfill, which would receive Hawaii's trash under one of the proposals, said Washington state's sparsely populated and relatively arid Klickitat County has welcomed the dump, which is the major business in the area. It converts methane from its waste into electricity.
Honolulu City Councilman Gary Okino said that while it takes about seven years to open a new landfill, Oahu officials have put off selecting a location. Landfills are limited to parts of the island that are not over an aquifer and have low rainfall.
"You need a big hole in the ground," he said. "Then, if it's near a residential area, you'll have a huge uproar."
By shipping some of Oahu's garbage to the mainland, the city would buy time to expand a curbside recycling program and build a third boiler at its H-Power plant, which turns municipal garbage into electricity.
The new boiler would extend the landfill's life to 30 years because it would be large enough to burn all of Oahu's municipal waste, leaving mainly ash and residue to be dumped in the landfill.
Hawaiian Waste Systems of Seattle was by far the lowest bidder of three companies that want to ship the trash. The company bid $99 per ton, which would cost the city $9.9 million a year, plus $7.8 million in lost landfill dump fees.
The city had planned to announce the winner of the contract this month, but that was put off after two rivals that bid $184 and $204 protested, accusing Hawaiian Waste Systems of coming in with an impossibly low bid — an allegation the company denies.
The city said it cannot move forward until the protests are resolved.