Hawaii is contemplating a trashy way of spreading the aloha spirit to Oregon
The city of Honolulu, which is fast running out of space at its main landfill, has hatched a plan to send container ships full of garbage across the Pacific to the U.S. mainland. One option is to send garbage up the Columbia River to Rainier, where the contents would be transferred onto trucks or trains bound for the Columbia Ridge Landfill near Arlington in Eastern Oregon.
As imports go, garbage isn't exactly a high-value commodity that states are lining up to pursue. In fact, most states are more interested in getting rid of their municipal solid waste than in bringing it in. Oregon, on the other hand, has tapped into demand for landfill space and is now the fifth largest importer of garbage in the country. Oregon owes its leadership in the garbage industry primarily to Seattle, which sends more than 2 million tons of trash a year to Columbia Ridge by rail on what is affectionately referred to as 'the perfume train.'
It is ironic that a state that prides itself on environmental consciousness and sustainability has gotten into the garbage business in such a big way. Oregon, which pioneered the Bottle Bill in 1971, has gone to great lengths to position itself as leader in the environmental movement. Oregon's legacy includes the second highest rate of curbside recycling in the country, a higher than average use of biofuels and a new renewable energy law that has been touted as a model for the nation. Oregonians generate less solid waste than most Americans. It's hard to see how encouraging people from Seattle, and now Hawaii, to dump their garbage in Oregon fits into that legacy.
Oregonians have more than cultural and philosophical reasons to be concerned about ships laden with Hawaiian garbage. They need strong assurances that Oregon's own environment and communities are not endangered by toxins, dangerous microbes and noxious weeds that could pose a serious threat if they somehow get out of the huge compressed bales of garbage covered with plastic shrink wrap. They need assurances that Oregon's waterways, highways and rail corridors can safely and cost effectively handle the extra traffic, and that the whole program fits into a comprehensive waste-management plan.
Certainly, Hawaii has a garbage problem that islanders must address. Not only is Hawaii one of the most densely populated states in the country, it is one of the most beautiful and ecologically fragile. After decades of disposing of rubbish in landfills and incinerators, Hawaii is simply running out of space and options. City officials say Honolulu will likely have no choice but to close its primary landfill next year. This is not just a Hawaiian problem, either - it is a national problem that millions of American tourists helped create. If Oregon can assist in a solution, that would be worth doing.
It is probably inevitable that Hawaii will at some point have to start exporting rubbish to the mainland. By the same token, Hawaii could do a much better job of following Oregon's lead toward a culture of environmental awareness and sustainability. One area that obviously needs work is recycling - Hawaiians recycle less than 25 percent of their sold waste. Oregonians, by comparison, recycle more than 50 percent of their waste.
Hawaiians should not fall into a sense of complacency toward sustainability simply because they found a place far, far away to ship mountains of Hawaiian garbage. That's just a quick fix. Oregonians likewise should offer no encouragement to any program that delays or sidetracks the evolution of a better environmental ethic - whether at home or 3,000 miles across the ocean.