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Viewing Trash as a Resource

February 16, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Civil Beat: Energy From Trash Should Be A Priority for Hawaii

Maui News: County will consider bids for waste-to-energy plant

As we enter 2013 Maui is looking very carefully at trash as a renewable resource. Even an engineering professor (see above) has published on the benefits of burning trash for power – and lists examples from many other parts of world, including Western Europe.

In this world of cheap manufactured products and huge agri-business and (relatively speaking) cheap fuel costs to bring huge containers to Maui, there is much plastic, steel, aluminum, glass, paper, and wood things that are removed from the Kahului or Kihei home and taken away, most likely to a trash fill. Since people have money (which leads to brief moments of happiness), they order or buy more stuff to use for a while, and after finding some value or happiness for a few months, out the items go again – into the trash.

People love their own personal brands, and would revolt in the streets (or buy from black market sources) at discovering in all Maui shops only one tooth paste or one clothes detergent (this idea of manufacturing all the detergent used by Hawaii residents annually IN Hawaii is not new – see Maui News Blog: Back to the Future: One Idea from the 1960s

Back to trash. Trash is like a dark bad embarrassing family secret – nobody wishes to admit the amounts of food thrown out daily. Nobody wants to admit the slightly worn Christmas toys or the half-eaten cans of Spam or corned beef thrown out. Or the auto parts, plastic bottles, beer cans, torn-up paper copies, even cut grass and leaves. Nobody wants to view the Maui landfill, while exhorting how Maui is “no ka oi” and an earthly paradise to visitors from Calgary or cousins enduring a blizzard in Colorado or Minnesota.

Burnable trash could be a sustainable resource, not something to hide and cover up, and then dig another huge hole somewhere semi-secret. Trash burnt can create steam to drive turbines, which creates electricity. A kilowatt of electricity powered by trash is X barrels of oil not imported to Maui.

I recall my years living in Tokyo, a city of 8 million residents in the “inner” 23 Wards and probably 14 million if you count Greater Tokyo cities and areas.

To dispose of tons and tons of trash by this huge population the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has evolved a long list of trash regulations. Amazingly, pretty much almost every Tokyo resident follows these many rules. (Foreign visitors are amazed how clean Tokyo is, and New York City is not a good comparison for the U.S.)

For example, at our Tokyo apartment we had two trashcans: “burnable” trash and “unburnable” trash. For the former, I also put all newspapers, books, and magazines aside and put them in a pile at the apartment “trash” room (there were “special” days for pick-up of these items).

For the latter, I would segregate all glass bottles into a “glass” box, and aluminum beer or soft drink cans into another box. For electronics or larger items, all residents are required to buy a “ticket” ($5 and above), and tape the ticket on the item so that the City trash collector would confirm that the fee was paid (there were again “special” days for larger, bulky items). I don’t wish to get into special larger items, like beds or furniture – but indeed there was special ways to dispose of them too. (Many Western/Nordic European countries follow similar complicated trash procedures. Switzerland and Germany probably are the most focused on trash, France and “Latin” countries, like Spain and Italy, less so. However, Americans hate any catch-up with Europe and Japan, and will probably launch new things if they believed it was an exclusive American idea -- ironically, my last blog post listed ethanol fuel was used to power cars on Maui back nearly 70 years ago.)

For all the time and work for Tokyo residents to follow the onerous trash regulations, there was an “up” side for all Tokyo residents: trash collectors transported the segregated “burnable” trash directly to huge trash-burning plants (creating steam to power turbines, much like how imported oil at >$100 a barrel is burnt on Maui to power turbines) that made electricity to power laptops, lights, electric toothbrushes, and heating for Tokyo.

Will 2013 for Maui be the year of trash as a resource, as an endless supply of fuel?


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