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The Next 50 Years - The price of garbage

Published:Friday | December 14, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Peter Espeut, Contributor

THE WEBSITE of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) reveals that 2,775 tonnes (2,726 tons) of municipal waste is generated daily in Jamaica. This works out on average to be about 1kg (2.2lbs) of garbage created by every person in Jamaica - man, woman, and child - every day. In addition, 5,310 tonnes (5,215 tons) of ship-generated waste arrives every day, and 572 tonnes (562 tons) of industrial waste is produced daily.

All this municipal, industrial, and ship-generated waste must be properly disposed of if we are to avoid serious environmental, public health, and social problems, not to mention a dramatic reduction in our quality of life. Of course, we have not avoided any of these: Kingston Harbour is dead, and one legacy we leave is seafloor sludge containing an accumulation of decades of toxic industrial waste which can kill our great-grandchildren; Kingston Harbour is toxic, and fish caught in it are not safe to eat; and the beauty of Jamaica's natural landscape and built environment is spoiled by solid waste strewn almost everywhere.

Since colonial days, solid waste in Jamaica has been collected by the Public Cleansing departments of the parish councils - a very expensive and inefficient process. In the 1980s, during the diminution in the number of parish councils, the Government formed five parks and markets companies like Metropolitan Parks and Markets (MPM), Western Parks and Markets, which it wholly owned. These entities were meant to deal with the collection and disposal of solid waste. The largest of these companies is MPM, since as much as 50 per cent of the solid waste generated in the country is attributed to the Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA).

The waste-disposal sites in Jamaica are Riverton - KMA; Church Corner - Morant Bay; Doctor's Wood - near Buff Bay; Frontier - near Port Maria; Haddon - near Walkerswood; Tobolski - near Brown's Town; Retirement - Montego Bay; Friendship - near Santa Cruz; Martin's Hill - north of Mandeville; and West Kirkvine - south of Mandeville.

Having solid-waste collection and management under five separate entities was also inefficient and fragmented, and in 2001, the National Solid Waste Management Act was passed. It replaced the Anti-Litter Act of 1985. The new act established an agency of the same name - the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) - as the primary body responsible for solid-waste management in Jamaica.

The scope of work of the NSWMA is clearly set out in the act under Functions of Authority - 4-(1). The first point is to " take all such steps as are necessary for the effective management of solid waste in Jamaica in order to safeguard public health, ensure that the waste is collected, stored, transported, recycled, reused or disposed of, in an environmentally sound manner and promote safety standards in relation to such waste". Jamaica has fairly good environmental laws; our major problem is in the implementation.

At Independence, Jamaica's solid waste was piled on the surface of garbage dumps. We remember the 'Dungle', which used to be in western Kingston. Today, we speak of landfills because the new approach is to dig a massive hole, tip some garbage in, cover it with soil, then tip some more garbage in along with more soil, and so on. Landfills are a vast improvement over dumps, but they are not without their own problems. They are expensive to operate properly: hundreds of truckloads of soil have to be brought in, and heavy earth-moving equipment has to be bought, or hired, to move it around. Dangerous liquids from garbage can leach into the aquifers underneath the landfill, polluting wells downstream, and eventually flowing into the sea, causing marine pollution. When it rains on a landfill, the water percolates through the garbage, dissolving harmful substances on the way to the aquifer, having a similar effect.

What is called for are sanitary landfills. Here, the bottom is sealed with some impervious material so that the leachate is impounded. The 2001 National Solid Waste Management Act takes cognizance of the problem. It states 4.-(2): "In performing the functions specified in subsection (1), the Authority may (a) convert existing dumps into sanitary landfills." So no one can accuse successive governments of ignorance of the problem or the solution. What they can be accused of is not making any attempt to do it! Fifty years after Independence we still have dumps, not even unsanitary landfills. Due to "budgetary constraints," very little covering of the garbage with soil has taken place in the last few years.

But there is no need for so much solid waste to be deposited in the landfill in the first place. Much of it can be recycled. I guarantee that almost no glass bottles or scrap metal - both of which can be converted into ready cash - are being deposited on the landfill. The workers on the garbage trucks have a keen eye, and all that stuff is taken off and sold.

Collection problems

There are companies which bale plastic waste
and export it. Their problem is collection. Imagine if there was a
refundable deposit on plastic bottles. 'Bottle police' would emerge from
under every stone, collecting bags and bags of plastic and taking them
to collection centres for a refund. Three problems would be solved: less
would need to be spent cleaning the streets and other public places of
plastic waste - the bottle police would do that job; less would need to
be spent on contracting garbage trucks to transport plastic waste - the
bottle police would do that job; much less solid waste would end up at
the landfill, requiring less soil to cover it, and fewer tractors would
be needed to move stuff around. Millions of dollars would be saved in
the process!

Of course, the deposit would be tacked on
to the price of the item, and the householder could return the empties
and collect the refund, cutting out the bottle police. At the moment, we
have no plastic reprocessing plant in Jamaica, and so once baled,
plastic waste may be exported and sold for hard cash. This is an
opportunity for the private sector to get involved in solid-waste
processing and management. Charging a refundable deposit on plastics can
reduce the tonnage of garbage trucked to the

The quantities of other materials which make
up solid waste can also be reduced. The technology for recycling paper
is well known but is not in commercial use in Jamaica. Some people with
sensitive environmental consciences would prefer to use recycled paper
rather than paper made from freshly cut trees. Many people would prefer
to buy products whose labels are printed on recycled

I would like to see the Government over the
next 50 years introduce at least plastic and paper recycling. It fits
into the mandate of the NSWMA, as set out under section 4-(2) of the act
"In performing the functions specified in subsection (1), the Authority
may (d) institute measures to encourage waste reduction and resource
recovery". Tax and other incentives should be offered to the private
sector to get into this kind of business.

In Barbados,
vegetable waste - tree cuttings, leaves, etc - are ground into mulch,
which is bagged and sold. Construction rubble is pulverised and reused,
and old tyres are diced and sold. I have visited their solid-waste
processing facility. It is a viable business. In terms of the Human
Development Index, Barbados is a First-World country. Are we even trying
to catch up?

Toxic gases

Let's be
honest. Over large expanses of Jamaica - rural and urban - household and
yard garbage doesn't even get to what we call landfills. It is scraped
up and burnt in backyards and street sides, usually in contravention of
the Country Fires Act and the Public Health Act. The burning of leaves,
plastic, rubber and other man-made materials produces smoke and releases
toxic gases. These toxic gases irritate the eyes, nose, and throat,
causing breathing difficulties, burning, coughing, nausea, headaches, or
dizziness. Smoke can worsen heart conditions and increase breathing
difficulties in persons with asthma. Ash from burning can damage the
lungs, causing bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer. It also contains
toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and

Many people also dump their domestic garbage
in rivers and gullies, which is unsightly, but worse, ends up
contributing to marine pollution.

In the next 50
years, I would like to see this damaging practice of the burning of
household garbage reduced to the point of non-existence. And I would
like to see all our dumps converted into sanitary

The amount of solid waste generated on
ships and landed in Jamaica is quite high. Jamaica has signed and
ratified the International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution
from Ships (MARPOL 73/78), and there is an obligation to provide
adequate reception facilities for all ship-borne waste. The convention
came into force on June 13, 1991, but 20 years later, Jamaica is yet to
have such a facility - even in one port! When we signed and ratified
MARPOL, we undertook to provide adequate waste-reception facilities at
all commercial ports.

Special wastes such as medical
waste, tires, and hazardous wastes pose particular problems in Jamaica.
The present system of incinerators for medical waste appears plagued by
poor design, poor operation, and inadequate and irregular maintenance.
The implications for waste handlers and scavengers are grave. Scrap
tires in landfills tend to deteriorate very slowly and provide mosquito
breeding grounds. Hazardous waste often ends up at dump sites mixed with
other solid waste material because of the absence of hazardous waste
dump facilities in the country.

I hope we don't wait
50 years to establish a hazardous waste reception facility in

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman
Catholic deacon. Send feedback to