By Léo Azambuja

Kaua‘i Community College student Rebekah Magers, right, is seen here helping student Marli Genegabuas during a waste audit she organized on campus in April. Photo by Josh Fukino

Have you ever thought about what you throw away is never actually thrown away? There is no such place as “away” on Planet Earth. We are literally littering our own home.

I’m not advocating for trash to be sent into the outer space. I’m pretty sure it would be cost-prohibitive and probably not the right thing to do. Plus who knows if we might anger some little green men in flying saucers, and the whole thing spins into a full scale Star Wars?

Jokes and silly ideas aside, there are a lot of things we can do right now to reduce the size of our trash. The first one is recycling. Just by recycling we can divert a large amount of trash that ends up in our landfill. And let me remind you, we should have retired Kekaha Landfill many years ago, but new permits allowed it to keep expanding vertically while we don’t have a new landfill in operation. I remember former County Councilman Mel Rapozo calling it “Mount Trashmore” during a public meeting.

This is not to point a finger at former or current administrations. The problem is too complex to simplify it in a rant. And besides, it’s not like they have been sitting idle on the problem; a lot of money and planning has been spent on trying to find solutions that will best suit our island community.

I am, however, pointing a finger at us. We can and should be the change we want to see on our island — and in the planet, for that matter. If we really want to reduce trash, we can do more than recycling.

Avoid plastic bottles like you would avoid a vampire. Ok, no need for garlic or crosses; just buy a reusable metal bottle. Bring your own grocery bags to the store. Favor buying fresh produce over processed food, and never put produce in the plastic bags available in the produce section. Seek clothing made with recyclable materials; there are plenty options from popular brands these days. Say “no” to soda; nothing good comes out of it anyway.

And finally, consider starting a composting bin in your backyard. Yes, composting. It’s quite easy, provided you have a backyard.

If you do all these things, you will notice that your trash will be very small, almost non-existent.

My college roommate at the University of Hawai‘i was an exchange student from Zurich, Switzerland. When she first saw me throwing a bag of trash into the trash bin in our apartment building in Honolulu, she reacted as if I was throwing money away. She told me that people in Switzerland are really mindful about reducing trash, because it is actually quite expensive to throw bags in the trash. And this was a long time ago.

I admit that when I first heard the idea of a “pay as you throw” program a few years ago in the hallways of the Historic County Council building, my first reaction was disbelief. By request from the administration, the council had just approved a fee to be added to our property taxes to increase funding for trash collection. A few years later, the county actually did implement some kind of “pay as you throw,” by offering two sizes of trash cans at two different fees. But county officials were considerate enough to offer an exemption to qualifying low-income property owners.

Today, I have a different opinion. I would even support a more aggressive “pay as you throw” program from the county. Yes, we’ve been hit with all kinds of fee increases in the last decade, for the sake of progress and providing better services to a growing population. But if we are charged more for what we put into our landfill, we will think twice before putting things in the trash can, or even taking home things that have a 15-minute lifespan, such as supermarket bags.

You can’t control what any of the 72,000 residents and some 30,000 daily visitors on Kaua‘i will do to reduce trash (someone please let tourists know it’s OK to drink tap water!). Or what the other 7.5 billion people on Earth will do. But you can control what you can do.

You and I can be the change you would like to see on our island and in the rest of the world. Nothing is stopping us.