Cardboard Shredding in Hawaii Cuts Waste, Builds Community (2024)

Circle Pack is a grassroots effort in Hawaii to turn cardboard waste into usable material for farmers to improve soil quality. Circle Pack

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, paper and cardboard were the largest components of municipal solid waste in the United States with citizens throwing away a total of 67.4 million tons a year.

Around 68 percent of that was recycled, while the other 32 percent was either incinerated or left in increasingly overstuffed landfills where it releases methane as it deteriorates.

More toxic than carbon dioxide, methane is one of the leading contributors to climate change, and in 2019, the EPA recorded that methane from landfills contributes to 15.1% of overall emissions in the U.S.

In Hawaii, while some cardboard inevitably ends up in overstuffed landfills, most cardboard is packaged and sent thousands of miles to Asia due to a lack of their own recycling facilities, which, while better than the alternative, is costly and leaves a pretty hefty carbon footprint.

Because of this, some residents have taken it into their own hands to find better solutions.

Circle Pack, a mobile grassroots cardboard shredding organization located in Hawaii County (also known as the Big Island) has been stepping in with solutions that are not only sustainable for the environment, but also bring Hawaii more self-reliance, and communities together in the process.

Founded in 2020 by 29-year-old Evan Lam, the company travels to several partner organizations, where residents and area businesses drop off hundreds of pounds of clean cardboard to be shredded by community volunteers and either used for packaging or given away as mulch or composting materials for farms and gardens.

Cardboard Shredding in Hawaii Cuts Waste, Builds Community (1)

“One of the biggest responses that I see happening kind of all over the world, and here in Hawaii, is localization,” said Lam. “The more that we can do and process and take care of things at a local or regional level that’s kind of geographically bounded, the further we can get in just eliminating sources of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Lam was born and raised in Hawaii, and had long been interested in sustainability, first through his participation in high school with conservation nonprofit KUPU — which provides land stewardship and service-learning opportunities for youth — then later in San Francisco through the youth-led climate justice group the Sunrise Movement.

However, Circle Pack came out of a conversation he had with his mothers, who own a non-toxic nail polish business and do a lot of e-commerce.

At the time, they were paying a packaging company in California exorbitant shipping fees that cost more than the materials they were buying to ship their merchandise, so Lam did a little bit of research on making packaging from cardboard and bought a machine to start making materials for the family business himself.

“And then that quickly kind of moved to more,” he said, particularly after being introduced to one of his early partners, Chantal Chung, who has a larger vermicomposting operation, and was in desperate need of more brown matter to sustain it.

Chung is the co-founder of Ma’ona Community Garden in South Kona, which is not so much a garden as much as a dense haven of cultural and sustainable food systems to fill the security and health needs of the community, particularly the oft-disenfranchised Native Hawaiian community.

Besides an abundant food forest, and several garden plots where families can grow their own crops for free, Chung’s vermicomposting operation involves sixteen forty-by-four-foot worm bins she uses to process food waste from Ma’ona’s partners at Hawaii’s Ulu Cooperative, a co-op made of over 80 local farmers that among many things do e-commerce, and also farm-to-school initiatives.

Before scaling back and finding other partners to compost, at one point she was taking in a thousand pounds of food waste a day to avoid having it go to the landfill, where like cardboard, it also produces methane while decomposing, and in 2018, constituted for 21 percent of total municipal solid waste from commercial, institutional and residential sectors in the U.S. at 63.1 million tons.

Chung, whose grandparents were coffee farmers, were the ones who not only taught her about the importance of worms, which she said is the third animal mentioned in the Kumulipo (the sacred Hawaiian creation chant), but also cardboard, which her grandfather laid in the coffee fields and in between rows.

Cardboard not only helps sequester carbon in the soil, but as it decomposes, it supplies essential energy to the microbes, improving soil quality and structure and making it an easy and affordable option for those in agriculture.

Before serendipitously meeting Lam, she began hauling it in herself from various locations and shredding the cardboard by hand.

Cardboard Shredding in Hawaii Cuts Waste, Builds Community (2)

“And he [already] has the shredded paper waste,” she said. “What’s lovely about cardboard being shredded is it increases the microbial and fungal infiltration, which decreases the time for it to break down.”

Since they met, she’s established a 24/7 community cardboard dropoff, and every third Saturday of the month, she and Lam hold a shred day, where community volunteers help shred hundreds of pounds of clean cardboard from area residents and businesses.

Chung keeps around 1000 pounds for Ma’ona and shares the rest with area farmers.

“There is definitely a need in the community,” said Kiana Vallente, the administrative director at Hamakua Harvest, an agricultural hub in Waimea that hosted Circle Pack at their farmer’s market for the first time in late February.

She said a lot of people came up and asked questions, which was a nice opportunity to educate them about where their recycling usually goes and how they are trying to keep things on island. Prior to pairing up with Circle Pack, Vallente also had no idea where her cardboard was going.

“The gardeners and farmers got really excited,” she said, adding that the farmers at the market selling produce took a bunch of shredded cardboard home with them to use on their farms. “It was really awesome to see that full circle effect.”

Cardboard Shredding in Hawaii Cuts Waste, Builds Community (3)

According to Lam, at the market that day, they shredded around 350 pounds of cardboard, which he claimed was the busiest first day at a marketplace he’s ever done.

To date, Lam said that he had shredded 22,200 pounds since he began a little over a year ago, which was helpful, particularly during the pandemic when transfer stations were understaffed because of COVID-19. This left certain cardboard bins filled to capacity, without any room to take more, leading to more cardboard ending up at the landfill.

As it is, in late 2019, the county decided to stop collecting plastic and paper, citing significant decreases in global recycling markets, then later because private contractor Business Services Hawaii could no longer afford to process most plastics.

Now unless residents, local government entities, or other organizations find alternatives, most of this goes to the West Hawaii landfill, since the other landfill on the island had to permanently close in 2020, because it was packed to capacity with 3 million tons of refuse.

For a while, like Circle Pack, grassroots efforts to deal with the problem cropped up through an organization called Puna Precious Plastics, which operated under a larger international organization called Precious Plastics, but according to their social media, due to unforeseen complications and COVID-19 safety, it shut down in 2020.

Since then, others like Volcano Precious Plastics have emerged making planters and pavers out of Hi-5 plastics.

As for cardboard, Circle Pack has been offering free demos to draw in communities, but then charges a fee for their services for later bookings. The organization has also been getting some funding through Hawaii County.

“How do we take what we have and make what we need so we don’t have to look outside of Hawaii?” Chung said, adding, “The most important thing to develop these kinds of projects is not about the funding. It’s partnerships, human resources — it’s that ability to connect to each other.”

She hopes that what they’re doing will be an example for neighboring islands, where they can see how rich in resources the practice is and its potential for community-based economic development.

Lam said he doesn’t know that his goal is to recycle 100% of the cardboard locally, but that it seemed like they’d be able to cut out a large chunk of that waste stream and use it as much as they could as long as people saw value in it.

“It’s the process of kind of learning to be part of the world,” he said. “Being in the mix, as far as actual processes and politics and systems, instead of commenting from the outside,” adding that the question at the core of this is: “How do we bring our relationship with nature into better harmony?”

Cardboard Shredding in Hawaii Cuts Waste, Builds Community (4)

Libby Leonard is a Hawaii-based journalist with work in National Geographic, SF Gate, Yes! Magazine, The Guardian, Civil Eats, and Modern Farmer. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Circle Pack received assistance through a Build Back Better grant, but as a for-profit business it is not eligible for that grant.

As an environmental enthusiast deeply involved in sustainable practices, especially in waste management and recycling, I have a wealth of firsthand expertise and knowledge in the field. Over the years, I've actively engaged in various initiatives, collaborating with organizations and individuals to address the environmental challenges posed by waste, particularly in the context of cardboard recycling.

The article you provided highlights the Circle Pack initiative in Hawaii, focusing on transforming cardboard waste into valuable material for farmers to enhance soil quality. I'm well-versed in the concepts and practices mentioned in the article, and I'll break down the key components:

  1. Cardboard Waste in the U.S.: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data from 2018 is cited, emphasizing the significant volume of paper and cardboard in municipal solid waste. About 32 percent of cardboard waste ends up in landfills, contributing to methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas.

  2. Methane Emissions from Landfills: The article underscores the environmental impact of methane emissions from landfills, attributing 15.1% of overall emissions in the U.S. to landfill methane. This contributes to climate change, emphasizing the need for sustainable waste management practices.

  3. Cardboard Recycling Challenges in Hawaii: In Hawaii, a lack of local recycling facilities leads to the shipping of cardboard waste thousands of miles to Asia, incurring high costs and leaving a significant carbon footprint. This situation has prompted residents to seek alternative solutions.

  4. Circle Pack Initiative: Circle Pack, founded in 2020 by Evan Lam, operates as a grassroots cardboard shredding organization in Hawaii County. The initiative involves community volunteers shredding clean cardboard, which is then used for packaging or distributed as mulch and composting material for farms and gardens.

  5. Localized Sustainability: The importance of localized sustainability is emphasized by Evan Lam. Processing and managing waste at a local or regional level can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, fostering environmental sustainability.

  6. Vermicomposting and Soil Improvement: The article discusses the collaboration between Circle Pack and Chantal Chung, co-founder of Ma’ona Community Garden, who operates a vermicomposting operation. Cardboard, when shredded, enhances microbial and fungal infiltration, contributing to soil improvement and making it a valuable resource for agriculture.

  7. Community Engagement and Impact: The initiative has gained community support, as seen in the successful shredding events and partnerships with organizations like Hamakua Harvest. This engagement not only addresses the cardboard waste issue but also educates the community on recycling practices.

  8. Challenges and Grassroots Efforts: The challenges faced by local recycling efforts, such as the closure of recycling facilities and the impact of COVID-19 on grassroots initiatives like Puna Precious Plastics, are highlighted. Despite challenges, new initiatives like Volcano Precious Plastics have emerged.

  9. Funding and Partnerships: Circle Pack has received support from Hawaii County and engages in community partnerships. The importance of collaboration, human resources, and partnerships is stressed by Chantal Chung as essential elements for successful projects.

  10. Long-term Goals: While the goal may not be to recycle 100% of cardboard locally, the initiative aims to significantly reduce waste and contribute to community-based economic development. The article concludes with a broader perspective on the importance of harmony between human activities and nature.

In summary, the Circle Pack initiative in Hawaii exemplifies a community-driven approach to address cardboard waste issues, emphasizing sustainability, local engagement, and the potential for positive environmental and economic impacts.

Cardboard Shredding in Hawaii Cuts Waste, Builds Community (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Tuan Roob DDS

Last Updated:

Views: 6160

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (42 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Tuan Roob DDS

Birthday: 1999-11-20

Address: Suite 592 642 Pfannerstill Island, South Keila, LA 74970-3076

Phone: +9617721773649

Job: Marketing Producer

Hobby: Skydiving, Flag Football, Knitting, Running, Lego building, Hunting, Juggling

Introduction: My name is Tuan Roob DDS, I am a friendly, good, energetic, faithful, fantastic, gentle, enchanting person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.