The garbage problem: the Caribbean tackles recycling

Disposing of garbage is a growing concern for small islands with limited space for landfills. Aruba is tackling it head-on with an ambitious recycling programme, Nazma Muller explains — are other Caribbean countries following suit?

Photograph courtesy Aruba Reusable Bag

Although recycling technology has become so advanced that some companies can now take garbage as unpromising as old cigarette butts and turn it into a bench, the pace of recycling efforts in the Caribbean has been, shall we say, unhurried. And, surprisingly, it’s one of the region’s tiniest islands — Aruba — which has made the most progress.

Before July 2009, an enduring image for many visitors to Aruba — as they arrived and departed from the international airport — was the stuffed-to-capacity landfill nearby. An additional landfill built in 2004 had a lifespan of only five years. With a land area of just sixty-nine square miles and nowhere left to dump the tonnes of rubbish generated by its 105,000 residents and thousands of tourists, the island decided it was time to go green. And Aruba has never looked back.

In addition to a national campaign to “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and restore,” which sought to change attitudes among the general population, authorities worked with the US-based company WastAway to divert and process up to half of the island’s municipal solid waste. Constructed on the edge of what was once the landfill, the WastAway facility converts mixed garbage into a homogenous and pathogen- and odour-free material which can be used as a carbon-rich, renewable feedstock.

A growing number of private companies in Aruba also recycle and ship paper, newspapers, cartons, and aluminium, as well as printer and toner cartridges, to buyers abroad. And, most inspiring of all, the island can boast of having made both a fashion and an environmental statement with its gorgeous (and educational) Aruba Reusable Bag. Made from recycled plastic bottles, the Aruba Reusable Bag is decorated with images of local landmarks, such as Indian cave paintings and the California Lighthouse, as well as the Aruba One Happy Island licence plate, the Divi Divi tree, and immigration stamps. The water-resistant and washable bag can be folded into a compact pouch, and though very light, it can hold up to forty-four pounds. Ethically made under fair labour conditions, the bag is itself one hundred per cent recyclable.

 

When it comes to recycling, the rest of the Caribbean definitely needs to go Dutch. In Jamaica, no legislation exists to address the disposal of Styrofoam, glass, and beverage containers. The country does have a National Solid Waste Management Act, but it speaks only to the establishment of the government agency responsible for waste.

While there are now more than a dozen private companies in Jamaica involved in recycling plastics, cardboard, glass, tins, newspapers, magazines, books, printer and toner cartridges, used car batteries, and tyres, residents and business owners still have to take their recyclable material to the recycler or a depot. Jamaica’s recycling efforts could be vastly improved by increasing the number of depots and collections, introducing incentives (and penalties) to promote proper disposal of solid waste, and raising awareness among residents and businesses. Companies who produce items in packaging that can or cannot be recycled should be made to take more responsibility for their disposal.

“The biggest problem with recycling in Jamaica is the cost of transport,” explains Suzanne Stanley, programme director of the Jamaica Environment Trust. “If there were more depots and people could get their garbage (much less their recycling) collected on a regular basis, I think there would be good compliance. People want to recycle and are open to the idea, but having to transport your recyclables to a depot in Kingston when you are out of town is prohibitive to most people.”

In April this year, after yet another fire at the Riverton City dump on the outskirts of Kingston, the Caribbean Policy Research Institute released a policy brief that recommended Jamaica should move to convert its annual 800,000 tonnes of residential waste into energy by investing in a waste-to-energy plant. The Bahamas, for example, has promised to construct a waste-to-energy plant at one of its landfills, which is expected to generate 2,500 construction jobs and four hundred permanent jobs. And Nevis has signed a US$20 million deal to construct a waste-to-energy plant that will use domestic and commercial waste, as well as recyclables, organics, and other material to provide energy.

Meanwhile, last April the National Geographic Channel named and shamed Trinidad and Tobago as the country that generates the most garbage per capita (thirty-two pounds per year). Local authorities strongly disputed the alarming figure, saying the data were incorrect and unverified.

But there is no disputing the fact that T&T, the wealthiest country in the region, has been the most lethargic in implementing recycling programmes. The country’s landfills — which environmentalists claim are really dumps, since the holes dug to receive garbage are not lined to prevent leaching — are bursting at the seams. In 2010, a pilot project called Plastikeep (backed by the country’s Green Fund, which is derived from a tax levied on corporations) installed recycling bins at various locations in north-west Trinidad, established a recycling system, and educated the public on how to recycle plastic. Residents in targeted communities were trained and informed about methods of separation, collection, and transfer of post-consumer plastics intended for recycling. By the end of the pilot project, a total of 28,764 kilos of plastic waste material had been collected.

The second phase of the Plastikeep project aimed to collect and assess post-consumer plastic in west Port of Spain and find possible uses for post-consumer plastic in Trinidad. And in June, the Trinidad and Tobago Solid Waste Management Company (SWMCOL) unexpectedly opened its first recycling depot in Port of Spain. The depot only accepts glass bottles and jars, beverage cans, tetra-paks (from milk and beverages), and plastic beverage bottles, however. A Beverage Container Recycling Facility (BCRF) shreds plastic bottles, and the shredded material can then be used in plastic manufacturing (to make new bottles, carpets, toys, plastic lumber, etc). SWMCOL has said that a number of international suppliers and a local supplier have expressed interest in buying the material from the BCRF, which was built and outfitted at a cost of US$4 million from the Green Fund.

At Piranha Recycling, the only certified electronic waste disposal company in Trinidad and Tobago, old computers and laptops that have been sent to be recycled by large companies are reconfigured, if possible, and donated to churches and schools. Otherwise, they’re disassembled and the parts recycled, or sold to buyers abroad. Each piece of waste is tracked at every stage of the process. But owner Brian Allum believes the focus should not be on recycling in Trinidad and Tobago — the time for that has already past.

“We need to ban plastic bottles and Styrofoam immediately,” he says. “The cost of disposing of these materials is just too high.” That’s a step beyond what even Aruba has achieved — but the reality of limited space on small islands for future garbage disposal means it may be inevitable.