Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr | Develop practical, innovative solutions to solid waste problem
There has been growing discontent by Jamaicans about the proliferation of trash across the country’s landscape. “There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere,” said sustainability advocate Annie Leonard. Marine biologists frequently note that “somewhere” is actually a physical location.
We therefore need to look at solid waste management from a different perspective. We cannot continue with the current poor management practices, including infrequent collections, poor vehicle maintenance and unavailability of trucks, nor certain behaviours of our population as it relates to their consumption and disposal practices.
While we acknowledge that some steps have been made to expand the fleet of trucks available through the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA), more work is needed to improve timely and adequate garbage collection islandwide. But the problem is larger than any one entity or institution.
IMPACT OF SOLID WASTE MANAGEMENT
Poor solid waste management touches many aspects of our lives, including adverse environmental and public health risks.
The rise in “informal dumps” across urban areas – often present on street corners and sidewalks – grow larger as passersby and community members add to them. Apart from being an eyesore, these dumps are major health hazards as they attract disease-bearing flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, and rats. In rural areas, these dumps may not always be so visible, and may include gullies, rivers, and mangrove forests, and many of these informal dumps may remain uncleared.
Solid waste also affects the air we breathe. When garbage is not collected on a timely basis, many Jamaicans may opt to burn it, despite current legislation under the Country Fires Act and the Public Health (Nuisance) regulations, which makes burning without permission illegal. Unfortunately, these laws are rarely enforced. The burning of garbage releases particulate matter and toxins that significantly impact our air quality and put our populations at risk, especially our most vulnerable citizens and those suffering from respiratory conditions.
There are other health issues associated with our larger garbage dumps. There have been frequent fires – sometimes on a large scale – at Riverton in St Andrew, Retirement in St James, Church Corner in St Thomas and other official dumps across the island. One air quality study found high levels of particulate matter and volatile organic compounds such as benzene (which has been linked to cancers such as leukaemia) following a fire at Riverton in 2015. Moreover, large waste disposal sites can release leachate of toxic chemicals into the soil, which can in turn contaminate groundwater and ultimately the water we use for cleaning and drinking. Medical and e-waste also pose additional dangers.
The resultant danger posed by poor management of our garbage dumps speaks to the need for more proactive management at a national level. Following repeated breaches of many dump sites, the PSOJ is calling on the Government to expedite the process of identifying and implementing a more secure, and environmentally sustainable mechanism for the country’s garbage disposal – to transition to true landfills and waste management facilities, not dumps.
CANNOT BE OVERLOOKED
The damaging impact of extreme events due to climate change cannot be overlooked. As we frequently see on the news, the build-up of garbage of all kinds – in particular plastic bottles – seriously exacerbates the effect of extreme weather events, as blocked drains cannot effectively carry off stormwater thus causing widespread as well as localised flooding.
Additionally, there’s the socio-economic impact of improper solid waste management, which includes reduction in land values and investor friendliness due to the proliferation of garbage in open lots and public spaces. Furthermore, roads and shipping corridors clogged with trash reduce access for businesses and individuals.
Moreover, dumping in gullies, rivers and along the coast is an ongoing ecological disaster. Solid waste harms marine and coastal wildlife habitats – turtle nesting sites, mangroves, coral reefs, and more – in addition to our prized beaches. This is repulsive for both locals and tourists, thus impacting a critical sector in our economy.
Further, as the PSOJ’s recent experience with Project STAR in downtown Kingston has already shown, solid waste and sanitation issues can also exacerbate security concerns.
Recent initiatives by the Dutch non-profit, The Ocean Cleanup, along with local firms Clean Harbour Ltd, the GraceKennedy Foundation, and the Mona GeoInformatics Institute in tackling the daunting task of cleaning the Kingston Harbour is significant but will need to be supported and sustained. Material cleared will need to be processed and removed, but also sources of this waste will need to be addressed as well.
To deal with illegal dumping, littering, and growing piles of garbage, more frequent and efficient collections are clearly needed. More well-maintained garbage trucks are needed, and a thorough review must be done to identify the most capable trucks for use within the country that meet our waste disposal requirements, including smaller ones for narrow roads. The frequency of garbage collections should be adjusted to meet changing demands, including the expanding and more densely populated developments across Jamaica.
Apart from addressing logistical and management issues in our current solid waste management system, Jamaican policymakers, technocrats, and entrepreneurs should prioritise good governance and eliminate corruption from the procurement processes and execution of garbage collection. Cost-effective and capable contractors should be transparently selected, and their performance should be monitored.
The recent ban on single-use plastics has had an effect, and businesses have adapted their own practices to slow the influx of these into the environment, while providing a new innovative medium for marketing and branding their products and businesses. Plastic bottle recycling initiatives have also ramped up, and need more support to achieve scale and effectiveness in the overall society and general consciousness.
Globally, waste-to-energy opportunities abound in urban environments. Tokyo has several dozen decentralised waste-to-energy plants distributed across the city. While producing energy (four tons of waste equals one ton of oil), the processes involved offset greenhouse emissions and can help recover valuable resources. Bermuda is also a success story in the managed and effective utilisation of waste to energy facilities on their small island territory. We also see many examples globally, where creative businesses use waste as raw material for new products, from clothing to furniture. While many such ventures are small, our entrepreneurs need support to scale up viable businesses to sustainable levels.
Finally, “reduce, reuse, recycle” is more than a slogan. It has many aspects that are beneficial to communities, providing employment. Replacing the plastics that have a chokehold on our coasts, streets and gullies, we should begin working towards a proper circular economy that puts the “three Rs” catchphrase into practice.
It is not just individual Jamaican citizens who are responsible for the current, untenable situation regarding solid waste. The PSOJ urges all businesses to engage in sustainable solid waste management practices. We all need to play our part and think long-term impact, not short-term convenience. We encourage businesses to adopt proper Environmental, Social and Governance practices, which include waste management concerns, and to adopt a Triple Bottom Line of reporting, of profit, people and planet. The benefits are enormous.
We hope that public-private partnerships can be established to support repurposing waste; waste-to-energy projects; and an efficient method of dealing with hazardous waste. Instead of expressing despair at the overwhelming issue of solid waste, we must design a campaign that explains clearly why it is so important to address the problem. This will galvanise Jamaican citizens into action, to play their part – whether it is youth clubs, schools, neighbourhood associations, or church groups.
Jamaica urgently needs a comprehensive, imaginative and holistic action plan to address the issue of solid waste and its proper management, which is not only affecting our environment but also our health, our economic and social development and our quality of life. We owe it to ourselves.
- Dr Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr is the vice president of the Private Sector Organisation Of Jamaica (PSOJ). Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org