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The Story of your Cardboard, Part II.

Updated: Feb 5, 2021


So, the cardboard ended up at your door and then you took it to be recycled. But, what does recycling actually mean in Hawaii County? Where does the cardboard go when you're done with it? For Hawaii Island, most cardboard that goes to a county transfer station is sold to recyclers in Asia (at the time of writing, Taiwan). This is fairly common practice. Operation National Sword tells a story of China's decision to stop buying waste and recyclables from the West and the ripple effect it's still having on nations accustomed to shipping away their waste. So, when you put that box into the great, big brown bin, it stays there until a truck comes to pick it up. It's be hauled across the island, likely to Kona or Hilo, where it's compressed into a giant cube known as a bale of cardboard. On one sweaty afternoon, hundreds of bales are stacked into empty shipping containers. Then it's sold and hauled to the harbor where it's loaded back onto one of the thousands of cargo ships sailing across the Pacific Ocean and sent to Asia. When it lands - after 4,000-5,000 miles at sea - it's unloaded from a ship into a port. And then, it's not really clear what happens although Taiwan seems to have a world class recycling system. Nor is it clear that it all actually goes to Taiwan. It's very possible that it's bought by a company with an office in Taiwan then shipped to somewhere with less regulation like Malaysia. The point is it's very hard to tell. To put it in perspective, it'll cost you anywhere from $900-2,000 plus a passport, a COVID test, and at least a few months of planning to make a trip to Taiwan if you ever decide to go.


Your recycled boxes make a similar journey, every other week. That's only the cardboard we know about from the County's records. It doesn't account for what goes into landfill or is collected and sold by private recycling companies which are able to buy and sell with various recycling brokers. How do you tell where the rest of it really goes? It's easier to tell where the cardboard comes from then to tell where it actually goes. Despite being a globally traded commodity, our collective understanding of the system which both produces and recycles cardboard is limited. Perhaps, it is both our lack of data and how far away it is from our conscious. All that being said, it's certainly easier to understand what can happen to it if it stays here.

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