Kelly McIntosh | Talking garbage about nasty Jamaicans
That we are an island drowning in garbage is no secret. Ad hoc dumps have sprung up at almost every corner. And where skips do exist in public spaces, they are most often overflowing.
It is not uncommon to see untended heaps of garbage on sidewalks, in markets, and simply on roadsides. Even if you drive around with your windows all the way up, even if you don’t look to your left or your right when moving around the island, even if the garbage has become the proverbial ‘dead body in the living room’ that doesn’t impact your senses, the reality of our garbage situation hits home after heavy rainfall.
Roads flood after an hour or less of heavy rainfall. It is not simply that current drainage systems are insufficient for the amount of rainfall or run-off. The mounds of unsightly garbage flushed out of the drainage ways are stark testimony to the fact that we are not disposing of our garbage properly. After a heavy shower of rain, Kingston Harbour is like a field strewn with plastic after a huge festival.
I think that we are generating more waste than we did in the past. We consume water from plastic bottles more than we do from the tap. We eat out more. The bottles and the food containers are garbage that has to be disposed of.
Poor collection system
In addition to the fact that we are generating more waste, collection systems that are the responsibility of the State appear to be inadequate and perhaps poorly administered. Collection schedules are haphazard and unpredictable. Citizens, therefore, resort to burning, and in many cases, simply dumping their garbage wherever they can. Out of their sight, out of their mind is how they cope.
Community public skips are becoming a thing of the past, so people dump their garbage wherever they want. Commercial operators, too, are guilty of improper and illegal disposal of waste generated by their businesses. They contribute to the ad hoc dumps that are now a standard feature of a drive out to practically anywhere in the island.
Yes, there is a shortage of properly lined and maintained bins strategically placed in public places for people to dispose of their waste. But there is another factor that we need to confront and deal with that if left unchecked, will sabotage our best efforts at reducing waste; implementing recycling plans; implementing regular, predictable garbage-collection schedules; placing lined and maintained bins throughout our island; and holding commercial operators accountable where managing their own waste is concerned. We’ve all heard it said, and perhaps many of us have said it in disgust: “Jamaicans are too nasty!”
I was driving through Mavis Bank in rural St Andrew the other day. The first thing that greeted us was the overflowing public skip as you enter the community. Ugh! I also observed some ladies coming from church. They appeared to be in their 50s, dressed to the nines in their Sunday finery, including matching hats, stockings, and shoes. It was a hot day, so I didn’t blame one lady for sipping a cool beverage from a plastic bottle as she strolled. She drained the bottle as she walked with her sistren and then simply dropped her bottle at her feet as she strolled.
‘Jamaicans are nasty’
We’ve all driven behind cars or buses and seen garbage thrown from a window or two with nary a concern as to where the garbage, which could be a bottle or a bag of half-eaten food in its package lands. So, yes, let’s agree that “Jamaicans are nasty”. But the crisis that faces this small island nation demands more than a label even if that label is accurate. We need to address the root causes urgently.
It is one thing for the average citizen to make pronouncements about the nastiness of Jamaicans. That’s fine. But when I hear our elected officials and officials paid with taxpayer dollars declaring that “Jamaicans are nasty” and then leaving it there, I scratch my head. So what next? “Jamaicans are nasty” and then what?
I hear the rebuttals: “So what yuh expect Government fi do ‘bout dat? If people nasty, dem nasty, and is dem own damn fault when dengue lick dem down and dem flood out! Dem simply too nasty. Ah nuh everyting unnu must call Government fi deal wid!”
I am not calling on the Government to pick up after nasty Jamaicans. I am calling on the Government to do what strong leadership is obliged to do in the face of dysfunctional culture: seek to influence change.
Our descent into nastiness did not happen overnight. We have gradually become comfortable existing in squalor. Breakdowns in solid waste management led to dirty communities. Garbage attracts more garbage. People littered once and got away with it. Someone else joined them and they, too, got away with it. Little by little, we chipped away at values and norms that were once taken for granted (and we see this in other areas of contemporary life in Jamaica, too) until we came to a place where a big, mature woman thought nothing of tossing her own waste at her feet in a public space.
The Government is tasked with protecting public health and creating safe spaces for the public. If a particular cultural dimension is negatively impacting their ability to properly do what they are to do, doesn’t it behove Government to address this dysfunctional culture of nastiness?
Exercising leadership in seeking to effect cultural change is the responsibility of public officials. I expect Government to articulate a clear national vision where garbage and cleanliness are concerned and to do all it can to share this vision and get buy-in from stakeholders across the island.
I expect Government to establish policies and systems that tackle our penchant for indiscriminate littering. I expect Government to insist that the rules are enforced and that sanctions are applied when they are breached. This is how you start to change culture. And I accept that it’s a tough, long, and grinding journey.
If we accept this explanation on how culture forms, one could reasonably conclude that leaders, by setting the right goals, then focusing on the right structures and processes, which will then yield the right behaviours, can and will effect culture change.
However, it is true that change will only happen when both leadership and followership agree on the need for the change. With apparent nonchalance from Jamaicans as to the garbage crisis and their role in getting to this point, it makes sense for Government to take the lead and encourage honesty in communication between stakeholders.
With Jamaica’s garbage crisis threatening public health being one of the major causes of flooding and dislocation, resulting in loss in productivity and creating generally unsafe environments, doesn’t it suit our leadership to tackle this now?
It is not enough to declare that Jamaicans are nasty and leave it at that. Dear leaders, you, by virtue of the resources at your disposal and the reach of your authority and influence, must influence culture change. If that’s not your tune, you’re talking garbage.