John Harder with wife Vida

Known as the Dump Doctor and the Compost King, John Harder of Zero Waste is convinced the ban on plastic shopping bags will be a huge benefit for Kaua’i

America is a petroleum-sick society, says Zero Waste Kaua’i’s John Harder as he discusses why he chose to play such an instrumental role in the island’s plastic bag ban that officially took effect Jan. 11.

“Our economic systems have looked too often at quick, easy solutions or that instant gratification,” he says. “When Zero Waste started putting together the proposal to ban plastic bags, the biggest lobby against us was the American Chemistry Council because they’re going to sell less petroleum.”

But environmental detriments associated with the creation of plastic bags aren’t the only reason to outlaw them. The nonbiodegradable products are also “one of the main elements of roadside litter and have such a major impact on marine ecosystems,” says Harder with notable passion in his voice.

“We sell this island and we’re selling the environment when we sell this island,” he says. “If it’s not beautiful, if there’s trash all over the place, it hurts us and our pocketbooks.”

Formed by a group of concerned citizens that included Harder in 2006, Zero Waste Kaua’i’s ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of trash the island generates in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible.

Harder in Saipan, where he set up the solid waste refuse plan

“You reduce the waste before it ever exists,” says Harder regarding the nonprofit’s dominant objective.

So while the new bag ban allows for biodegradable plastic or paper, Harder says it’s only a short-term solution.

“What we’re really promoting is reusable bags,” he says, adding that many other countries in the world never introduced plastic bags into the marketplace.

“The whole issue of convenience has gotten carried overboard,” says Harder who grew up in California but has lived in Hawai’i since the late 1960s.

Plastic water bottles are another example of American excess, adds Harder, identifying them as an additional issue Zero Waste is looking into.

Even though there are moments when purchasing water in a plastic bottle is unavoidable, those occasions are few and far between, Harder explains. In most cases, there is a water fountain nearby or one can simply plan ahead and carry a reusable bottle with them.

With a landfill in Kekaha reaching its capacity, stretching to a current height of 50 feet, and a new dumpsite slated for Lihu’e, it is imperative that people understand the impact of their trash, he says.

“Unless there is a big disaster with solid waste – a spill or a strike that shuts down the collection system – the public, as long as someone comes to take their trash away, they don’t really think about it,” says Harder.

But thinking about it is all Harder has done since he started becoming aware of the issue while attending college at the University of California at Berkeley – though he really attributes much of his early consciousness to his father, a carpenter, who was reducing and reusing as early as the 1950s and 1960s.

The true tip of Harder’s solid waste iceberg, however, began with his work for the county in closing the former Lihu’e landfill site and opening the town’s current transfer station.

Fondly referred to as the “Dump Doctor” by the community, Harder not only helped establish the county’s first solid waste management program, he initiated the entire state’s agenda in Honolulu as well.

Chad Deal, a volunteer for Zero Waste Kaua‘i, sets up bins for compostable and recyclable waste at a recent event

Prompted by federal regulations trickling down from the Environmental Protection Agency, the state’s updated rules mapped out by Harder in the early 1990s even received federal recognition.

“We just powered the rules through,” he says, adding that he also hired the state’s first recycling coordinator and helped pass various legislation, such as requiring batteries to be recycled.

Harder also spearheaded the initial composting efforts on Kauai and in the state, which is how he received his first nickname, the “Compost King.”

And if that weren’t enough, recycling on Kaua’i was yet another endeavor initiated by Harder.

It was the accumulated experience that took Harder as far as Saipan by the end of the 1990’s to develop the Northern Mariana Island’s solid waste program by creating a new site design while at the same time, “cleaning up the old dump,” he says.

“It was one of the worst dumps in the Pacific,” he adds.

Since Saipan had been a major battlefield, remnants of wars were dumped into a lagoon, creating a peninsula 60-feet high, he says. In fact, it was so bad, parts of the heap would burst into flames every three or four months.

“It was pretty ugly,” he says.

After Saipan and prior to returning to Kaua’i, Harder even served as the Division Chief of Maui’s solid waste program.

But it wasn’t long before he found himself back on the island he originally fell in love with many decades ago when he lived at Taylor Camp where his architecture background helped him build the “first real tree house there,” he says.

But he wouldn’t be living at the so-called hippie paradise this time. Harder headed back to his current home in Anahola in 2006 where he furthers his conservation efforts by living entirely off the grid.

“Solar water heating is still way under-used on this island and is by far the most cost-effective way to cut your energy bill,” says Harder who also helped devise the Kaua’i Energy Self-Sufficiency Plan for the island in the late 1970’s.

Upon his return, Harder immediately joined Apollo Kaua’i – an organization dedicated to promoting energy efficiency – and discovered there were others who shared his concern for the island’s solid waste direction which inevitably led to the formation of Zero Waste Kaua’i.

John Harder: part of a ‘sustainable solution

“Now I’m not as concerned about the direction as I am about the speed,” he says.

It wasn’t until recently that the county finished updating its Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan which “represents a roadmap setting the county’s vision for the future management of municipal solid waste,” according to the county’s website. The plan was last revised in 1994, Harder says.

“It was long overdue for an update,” says Harder who is currently retired and married to Vida, with whom he has two grown children, Keikilani and Maile.

An element the plan calls for is implementing automated refuse collection, which recently began in Lihu’e.

“When you automate, essentially you free up the trucks and two men,” he explains. “The recommendation was once they started automating to start to phase in green waste collection immediately behind that with the manpower and equipment that’s been freed up. That’s not happening yet. A lot of it has to do with the economic straits we all find ourselves in.

“I’m sure it will happen, just not as fast as everyone wants. I mean, that’s kind of the way the world goes.”

One thing Harder says he sincerely hopes will soon come to fruition is the construction of a materials recovery facility to separate and sort recyclable components.

Waste should not be seen as waste, he says. It should be viewed as a resource.

In the meantime, Zero Waste will continue to do everything it can to help reduce, reuse and recycle the island’s garbage, Harder says.

“Zero Waste is part of a sustainable solution for our island’s economy … conserving resources rather than throwing them away -investing in a Zero Waste infrastructure, rather than pouring money into huge landfills or incinerators,” he says.

“Zero waste is not about getting to zero. It is about being on the path to zero. It is a design principal for the 21st Century.”

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