Not just any old trash: recycling in the Caribbean

Not only does recycling have a positive impact on the environment, it can become a profitable business venture. Mark Wilson looks at some Caribbean businesses seeking to do both

Depositing bottles at Carib Glassworks. Photograph by Mark Wilson

They’re everywhere: old cans, bottles, plastic containers, car bodies, refrigerators; in the gutters, on empty lots, in gullies, by roadsides, floating in the sea. As Caribbean economies grow and prosper, there’s an increasing mountain of garbage to dispose of. With well-designed landfills now planned or in operation in most islands, most garbage will soon be out of sight and out of mind.

But landfills don’t come free, and have limited capacity. Small islands desperately need to recycle as much of their waste as possible. Unfortunately, that’s when the problem becomes not too much garbage, but too little. Most islands don’t produce enough plastic, or enough glass, or enough paper, to run an economic recycling facility.

Most waste is high-bulk and low-value. But some Caribbean companies have mastered the art of using other people’s garbage to assist their bottom line. Carib Glassworks in Trinidad, for example, is hungry for broken glass or cullet. It needs at least 18,000 tonnes a year, most of which would otherwise take up valuable space in the region’s landfills. Adding around 40% cullet to the silica sand and other materials used in the furnace means using less energy to produce better glass more quickly.

Around half the cullet is supplied locally. Place a bottle on a pavement outside a busy Trinidad bar on a Friday night, and it disappears within nanoseconds, for re-use or recycling. Glass also comes from schools, restaurants and community groups, earning the supplier TT$200 a tonne. For a low-value commodity, the logistics can be complex, but the payoff is environmental as well as commercial.

Carib Glassworks started recycling 51 years ago, long before the concept became fashionable. The effort picked up in earnest around 1994. The volume of cullet used has more than doubled; a quarter comes from other regional sources — and regional, for once, includes the Dutch and French-speaking Caribbean: Suriname, Curaçao, Martinique and Guadeloupe, as well as Guyana, Barbados, St Kitts-Nevis. Anguilla joined the family in November 2000, with 20 tonnes of high-quality, clean glass. St Lucia is expected to start regular shipments from 2001. Some cullet also comes from the United States, but with higher costs and a different chemical composition, the preference is for regional glass.

With sensible government regulations and a high level of private initiative, Barbados is ahead of most of the region in recycling. Take plastic (PET) drinks bottles. By law, manufacturers and importers must operate a deposit-and-return system, at ten Barbados cents per bottle. That’s a strong cash incentive for proper disposal.

Envirotech takes full advantage of this, buying bottles from the public and charging the drinks companies ten cents each to destroy them, plus a small handling charge. The bottles are then ground and flaked, and shipped to China, where the residue is used to make polyester fabric for T-shirts and other garments.

Mel Harding set up the company with three partners in 1993; there is now a staff of 21. There’s ample scope for expansion within Barbados, he says, and there are plans to establish sister companies with a local partner in St Lucia, once environmental regulations are in place, which can make this sort of recycling profitable.

The government’s sanitation service authority levies a charge for the disposal of old car tyres. So once again, there’s a cash incentive to go to Envirotech, which takes them for free. Some of the tyres are used to make non-slip floor mats for places like schools and hotel kitchens. Others are ground up and sold to stables, where they are mixed with other material and spread on the floor. Until now, the alternative has been a high-cost import from Florida.

Old cooking oil from hotels and restaurants is another money spinner; it can be strained, purified, and sold to Roberts Manufacturing, the local animal feed company. And car batteries? Envirotech collects around 70% of them. They are shipped to Venezuela, where the lead and electrolyte — both potential environmental hazards — are reused. Paper, too, can be shredded and compacted to make litter for chicken farms.

But paper recycling is not always straightforward. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Solid Waste Management Company collects paper, sorts cardboard from high-grade office paper and other types, and produces around 3,300 half-tonne bales for export. Unfortunately, paper prices fluctuate widely, and international transport costs to paper recycling mills in Venezuela are high. When the paper price is up, the operation is a money spinner; when the cycle is down, margins are tiny, although there is still a strong environmental benefit to be derived from reduced landfill volume.

However, there is now a cardboard recycling plant within the Caribbean. In Guyana, Caribbean Container Inc. has begun recycling used cardboard to make paper for new boxes. The cardboard comes from local sources, and the boxes go to Suriname, Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica. The paper industry can be a valuable export earner for Guyana, without posing a threat to the country’s spectacular rainforest.