Wasting time on waste management
Ten days on and Jamaicans are still reeling from the impact of the most recent Riverton City dump fire, costing our economy approximately $300 million. With nearly 1,000 visits to public hospitals and others to private doctors for treatment of smoke-related illnesses, school closures and GSAT suspension, loss of economic opportunities from business closures, and the personal discomfort and nuisance factor caused by smoke-related effects, this recent event tells a gripping tale of a country that is yet to come to terms with establishing a proper waste-management strategy.
While the burden of the latest catastrophe lies with this current Government, despite the prime minister's seeming unwillingness to take responsibility, the fact is that as a country, we have, for a long time, not come to terms with establishing a sustainable waste-management strategy. We have, in effect, wasted time in dealing effectively and decisively with waste management, rather, only seeming to discuss options when it becomes an obvious nuisance, distraction, or negatively impacts us as a people.
Let's be clear about this. As a country, from a growth-and-development perspective, there should be no uncertainty as to what to do to pursue a cost-effective, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable waste-management strategy. Many countries are pursuing such strategies successfully with minimal risks from fires and pollution that we have had to experience. Further, there have been many offers to successive governments from multilaterals and private-sector interests to consider and implement various proposals to establishing sanitary landfill sites in the country, but to no avail.
It seems clear that a lack of political will, caused perhaps by the politics related to scarce benefits from garbage collection, disposal, and storage, has been championed over doing what is right for the Jamaican people. In this latest episode, it appears as things change, they also remain the same, with the Government seemingly unwilling to signal its intention to take a more holistic approach to waste management.
Given that there can be no political advantage for things to remain the same, there lies an opportunity for the Government to act decisively this time around for solving this perennial challenge of fires related to Riverton and waste management in general. The politically smart thing to do, given what thousands of Jamaicans have just experienced, is establish an enterprise team to package and consider proposals for a public-private partnership to establish and operate sustainable waste management for the country and to give a timeline of no longer than a year to complete this process. This would represent at least a temporary redemption for our prime minister.
The value of garbage
As a country, we dispose of approximately 800,000 tons of residential waste annually, with 60 per cent going to the 120-hectare Riverton waste shed at a cost of more than $10 billion expenditure. A Government of Jamaica-sponsored study on integrated waste management strategy and action plan and the 2010 energy-from-waste policy National Energy-from-Waste Policy 2010-2030 clearly articulates the direction that they can and should pursue to achieving a more sustainable waste-management strategy. Why the delay? And can we afford to delay much longer?
Studies conducted by the National Environment and Planning Agency reveal that 82 per cent of the waste generated in Jamaica is organic, that is, the waste is either recyclable or compostable. This represents a volume of approximately one million tons. More than half (62 per cent) of the organic waste generated is made up of household waste, market waste, cuttings, and horse waste, making it perfect for composting. Recycling would be a viable option to undertake since plastic and paper products together account for 21 per cent of the total waste generated.
According to a soon-to-be-released study by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), a policy think tank based at the University of the West Indies, "The incineration of municipal solid waste (non-toxic waste) is considered an efficient method of waste disposal due to the potential for thermal energy and also its environmentally-friendly nature. This could reduce the amount of waste that needs to be disposed of by over 85 per cent."
CaPRI explored a number of existing studies and investor interests contained in business proposals to show that it would be economically viable for the establishment of a waste-to-energy project using municipal waste directed to the Riverton City dump site, through incineration and heat recovery, to produce electricity output of 255 Giga Watts-hours (GWh) per annum to the national grid from an installed capacity of approximately 35 Mega Watts (MWe).
The CaPRI study continues: "Public-private partnership could give rise to an estimated foreign direct investment (FDI) of US$143 million for an incineration based 35MWe plant consuming around 1,800 tonnes of MSW per day. This would drive productivity as well as reducing the levels of water and air pollution". This approach would lend itself to job creation for all levels of skill sets, from engineers to those non-skilled, poorer Jamaicans, who seek out their daily livelihood from the dump and who could be utilised as sorters.
other critical elements
This model would require other critical elements to ensure success, including public education and participation and a regulatory framework including a power purchase agreement from the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) that motivates private-sector participation.
Of course, Jamaica would not be unique in pursuing this approach. We would instead join an impressive list of countries that have been much more progressive and deliberate in pursuing sound waste-management strategies. The CaPRI study looks at three countries from which we could learn - Barbados, Japan and Singapore - all with varying levels of success and public- and private-sector participation, all involving significant levels of recycling and all using waste to generate significant economic value in an environmentally sustainable way.
It cannot be beyond us to do the same. Madame Prime Minister, show us that you can be transformational. In the interest of Jamaica, give the directive and hold your implementers to account.
- Christopher Tufton is co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, a policy think tank, based at the University of the West Indies, and a former government minister.