The winds of change
Maybe now that the wind has changed, and the smoke from the burning Riverton dump has gone uptown, we will see an improvement in how Jamaica handles solid waste. As long it is only poor black people who are afflicted by deadly air pollution, nothing will change. Thank God for the winds of change that blew from the dump, uptown to Barbican, Norbrook, Cherry Gardens and Stony Hill.
Solid waste has been a feature of human settlements from time immemorial. In ancient times, the Jerusalem city dump was called Gehenna, and when it was burning, it conjured up ideas of Hell fire! Last week, Riverton was like Hell!
The ancients got rid of garbage by burning it or by burying it. Solid-waste disposal has advanced a far way since 500 BC, but looking at the Riverton dump, you wouldn't know it. When will we come into the 20th century, never mind the 21st?
The failure of the Riverton dump is a failure of planning. Put people to live in large numbers in cities and they will generate garbage and sewage. The sanitary and efficient disposal of both has to be carefully and scientifically planned, and Jamaica has notoriously failed in both areas.
In our highly politicised society, we have made solid-waste disposal into a political feeding tree, with layers of party loyals 'eating a food' at various stages of the game. Contracts to collect garbage are part of the scarce benefits and spoils to be divided by those who win elections; jobs at the solid-waste management agency must go to solid party faithful, who will ensure the contracts go to the right people. Party faithful at the lower end of the scale are given the right to scavenge the dump for food and salable items; scrap metal dealers are high-end scavengers; contracts to transport soil to smother fires at the dump are windfalls for party faithful. Many people have a financial interest in the garbage dump system we have created, and will resist the winds of change. They must be resisted.
What is it that blazes in dump sites across Jamaica? Mostly tires, plastic, styrofoam, paper and cardboard. Remove these from garbage dumps and fires will be minimal.
Fires won't be totally eliminated; decomposition of vegetable matter like banana skins and old cabbage produces methane and other combustible gases (biogas) that can cause fires; this is normal in any garbage dump. If garbage is sorted and separately treated, vegetable matter can be allowed to produce biogas in a controlled manner, which can even be collected and used for cooking or the generation of electricity. This is not rocket science; other countries have been doing it for years. Will our brand of patronage politics allow it?
Why should highly flammable tires be accumulated at a site where methane gas is generated? We are asking for trouble! And have been getting it! Tyres must be accumulated elsewhere and processed into useful products, like road construction material.
We import thousands of tons of paper and cardboard annually, and annually throw away thousands of tons of paper and cardboard, which go up in flames at places like Riverton. Paper and cardboard are cellulose fibres which can be pulped and recycled into more paper and cardboard, thus reducing imports. Are there incentives in place to encourage manufacturing enterprises like this? Preventing paper and cardboard from entering garbage dumps to burn is an economic benefit in itself.
The method of preventing highly flammable plastic bottles from entering garbage dumps is well known: institute a deposit-refund system where manufacturers add on - say $5 - to the price of a product, which is paid to a person who returns the bottle at reception sites. Thousands of bottle police across Jamaica will collect every plastic bottle - even from drains and gullies - to earn some money. The volume of garbage will be reduced overnight, and less garbage trucks will be needed. Other countries do it; why can't we?
I have visited the solid-waste disposal facility in the more advanced island of Barbados, where tree trunks, tree branches and cuttings are chipped and ground into plant potting mixture and sold; concrete and stone construction waste is pulverised to make new construction material of varying grades, which is sold. There is nothing left to go into a landfill.
We need a comprehensive solid-waste disposal plan which will treat different types of garbage differently. We have no culture of sorting our solid waste, but one can be socially engineered. Add up the money to be saved in garbage collection and firefighting and we might yet earn cash from our trash. Let the winds of change blow!
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and an environmentalist. Email feedback to email@example.com