Mandatory Food Waste Recycling Ordinance for Large Food Establishments in Honolulu, Hawaii
by James Mak, UHERO, October 1, 2018
Honolulu’s 1997 mandatory business food waste recycling ordinance (Chapter 9, Section 9-3.5) … went into effect on January 1, 1997 …
Honolulu’s mandatory food waste recycling ordinance is based on the honor system. It relies on encouragement, education and county assistance to food establishments to elicit voluntary compliance rather than on coercion with harsh penalties for noncompliance. Moreover, the requirement to comply is waived if a food establishment can show that recycling is costlier than disposal. Despite this “soft” approach to regulation, there is high rate of compliance among large food establishments in Honolulu. The ordinance appears to be a success.
Some might disagree. They would argue that since so few food establishments applied for waivers, those that declared themselves to be in compliance would have recycled their food waste anyway because it cost no more for them to recycle than to dispose of their food waste; otherwise they could have applied for a waiver. For example, the FY2016 DES annual report (p.8) noted that “The vast majority of those businesses impacted by the City’s food waste recycling ordinance are continuing to use local piggeries to recycle their food waste.” Businesses are doing what they were doing before the ordinance was enacted. Thus, Honolulu’s mandatory food waste recycling ordinance is all “smoke-and-mirrors”—i.e. the ordinance pretends that something is being done, when it is not. The problem with this argument is that while it may be able to explain why food waste recycling did not increase, it cannot explain why it decreased right after the ordinance came into effect in 1997. The ordinance, though lacking “teeth” probably did motivate food establishments to reduce and recycle food waste. Determining how much the ordinance encouraged food establishment to prevent waste is inherently difficult, because food waste not produced cannot be counted.
Honolulu’s food waste ordinance created a government recycling program. It is not a source (food waste) reduction program. The city does not have a formal source reduction program other than a website with tips on how to reduce (food and non-food) waste. The City Auditor recommends the city do more to encourage residents “through community education and support of legislative change” to reduce waste at the source. The proposed solution “to support legislation” is rather vague. One option available to lawmakers is to employ an economics (i.e. “market”) approach whereby lawmakers adjust the cost of waste disposal by their authority to set the tipping fees at H-POWER. Raising tipping fees (consider it as an environmental surcharge) encourages food establishments to produce less waste at the source and recycle more. Getting away from a regulatory approach also gives food establishments the flexibility to choose how best to manage their food waste. For example, the Kroger grocery chain recently announced its own Zero Hunger, Zero Waste plan to eliminate hunger in its communities and zero waste within its company by 2025.
Some recommend using a “carrot” (rather than a “stick”) approach by granting tax incentives (either a tax deduction or a tax credit) to encourage businesses to make food donations to charities thereby reducing waste. Giving tax incentives for food donations amounts to giving food to the needy and getting taxpayers to pay for it. The IRS and Hawaii State Government currently allow businesses to claim tax deductions to “qualified organizations” for food donations. Raising the current incentives to encourage more food donations simply means that charities and hungry residents will receive more food (which is a good thing), but it also weakens the food establishments’ incentive to produce less food waste at the source knowing that taxpayers will pay for whatever is unsold. Hawaii State law assigns higher priority to source reduction. Perhaps the optimum solution is not a “carrot” or a “stick” solution but that both should be considered depending on the community’s objective.
Finally, the benefit of recycling has to be weighed against its cost. For Honolulu, the net benefit from food waste recycling changed dramatically when H-POWER expansion was completed in 2012 because H-POWER can now process all of Honolulu’s municipal solid waste. Indeed, the City is paying a substantial penalty to H-POWER’s contractor for failure to deliver the agreed upon minimum volume of waste to the waste-to-energy facility. The 2017 audit of the City’s recycling program concluded that, partly because of the guarantee and partly because of declining prices for recyclables, “Solid waste disposal costs can be reduced by diverting recyclable waste that is burnable to the H-POWER waste to energy facility.” That includes food waste generated in Honolulu by households and food establishments. There are others in Hawaii who share the same view....
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