Interview with Marti Townsend, Executive Director of the Hawaiʻi Sierra Club

Marti Townsend is a graduate of Moanalua High School, Boston University, where she studied political philosophy, and the William S. Richardson School of Law at UH Mānoa. She began her career at Kahea: the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, later became Executive Director of The Outdoor Circle and was named Executive Director of the Hawaiʻi Chapter of the Sierra Club in 2015. I sat with her and Ikaika Hussey over pizza in Kalihi, which is something I do very often, but I wanted to get an interview with her before she became a celebrity – featured on the front page of Midweek – but they beat me to it!

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Now watch as I exert my very limited influence on policy makers (or at least shapers of policy) – I’d been wanting to ask Marti for a while now about the prospects of raising the HI5 redemption amount to 10 cents:

Umi Perkins [UP]: So what about raising the [HI5] redemption to 10 cents [up from 5 cents]?

Marti Townsend [MT]: Sure that’s a great idea. [But] the beverage industry is very powerful in Hawaiʻi. It was a significant battle to get the bottle bill passed, and they are constantly making efforts to dismantle it. There is actually a bill in the legislature to repeal the bottle bill, which is ridiculous. There hasn’t been a recycling program as successful as HI5.

Itʻs just ludicrous to think how much trash would be going into the landfill without it. But as successful as the HI5 program has been there is definitely room for improvement. You canʻt get a HI5 redemption for wine and spirits, which makes no sense. You also canʻt get it for laundry bottles or milk jugs. [It ends up going to] H Power which is not really recycling…

UP: Iʻm just thinking about houseless [“homeless”], for example. Right now [those who may use HI5 redemption as a source of income or revenue] have to get 20 cans to get a dollar. If it was 10 cents, they could carry 30 cans and get three dollars and get a meal, like at McDonalds. [Right now they’d have to carry 60 cans].

MT: I don’t know to what extent people have talked about things like the HI5 as a way to help support the disadvantaged in our community. We really don’t do enough for people who are down and out on their luck.

Ikaika Hussey [IH]: That’s a great idea – you solve two problems…

MT: There are great efficiencies we could get by combining programs. Doing different kinds of recycling. [Like] if we treated everything like the HI5 program.

UP: I always thought the bottle bill and H Power go together because you pull plastic out of the trash supply, [then] if it’s mainly paper…

MT: H Power is horrible. You should do a whole blog thing on Covanta. So Covanta is this company that makes money off of incinerators. It doesn’t matter if they produce electricity – they get paid. And if Honolulu can’t provide [enough trash] then they charge [the city anyway]. It goes against our recycling goals, because H Power wants to have more trash, not less.

UP: Oh, right.

MT: Unless you expand what can be in the [HI 5] program… Why can we not recycle 2 liter bottles? Itʻs the same quality of plastic.

UP: So what are the main agenda items for Sierra Club?

MT: Well, pass the good bills, defeat the bad bills.

UP: What are some of the good bills?

MT: Today we had a very successful hearing on divesting Hawaiʻi’s retirement system from fossil fuels. We’re hoping that we can show that it’s in retirees’ interest, to divest from fossil fuels instead of waiting until they become stranded assets, as a result of all the regulations on emissions.

UP: The [oil] industry is hurting so bad right now… I heard there are more jobs in solar now than in fossil fuels…

MT: Yeah, three times more jobs in solar than in fossil fuel-based energy jobs. It’s so exciting. But you know what’s sad is that it’s forseeable that Hawaiʻi will see a downsizing from HECO’s slow moving to approve new solar projects, the tariff to approve new solar programs. The solar industry was booming, and they kind of have a backlog, so theyʻre relying on that, now post [after] the PUCs decision on net metering and things like that…

UP: So there was a headline that said HECO will triple solar, when it was already scheduled to go up by seven times, so they were actually slowing the growth?

MT: They’re slowing the growth, right. That backlog will start to run out and I think you’ll start seeing solar companies closing because they won’t have enough contracts to keep their staff.

IH: it’s a race to the bottom.

MT: The problem is HECO shouldn’t be increasing the amount of coal they burn from the AES power plant which is in a predominantly brown community, and decreasing the amount of solar out there – it’s just backward

UP: So those companies that might close is separate from those that would already close just due to competition?

IH: So there’s a lot of them and they don’t have any differentiating offerings…

MT: Except for price…

IH: They’re just installers. Their technology is all the same. Their revenues are being squeezed because of the tie-in to the grid.

UP: That’s why Next Era wants to keep everyone on the grid?

MT: They want to keep everyone on big energy projects, whether it’s LNG [liquid natural gas] or big solar arrays, they want to keep control of energy production from beginning to end.

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