Banning Plastics and Styrofoam – Not ‘the’ solution to our pollution problem
According to a 2010 waste characterisation study, Trinidad and Tobago sends almost 720,000 tonnes of solid waste to landfills each year – but even that vast number doesn’t account for it all. A huge amount of waste never makes it to landfill; instead, it pollutes our terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems, exacerbates flooding and generally causes an eyesore.
To make matters worse, the same study found that all of our country’s landfills “operate under stress and have either gone beyond the prescribed boundaries or have exceeded the expected elevations”. Strikingly, the majority (84%) of waste sent to these landfills is considered recyclable – which means that it is, in fact, a resource that can be put to valuable use and monetised.
The largest component (27%) of this recyclable waste is organic material – food waste, garden clippings and so on. Landfilling organic waste is not considered good practice: because of a lack of oxygen, this type of waste undergoes anaerobic decomposition and generates methane – a greenhouse gas. When released into the atmosphere, the climate warming impact of methane is 25 times more potent carbon dioxide.
Some of the other categories of recyclable materials that end up in our landfills are plastics (excluding beverage containers) (19%), paper (19%) and glass (10%). Beverage containers were found to constitute less than 1% of the recyclable waste sent to landfill.
While there is no shortage of existing and proposed legislation, regulations and policies relating to solid waste (see list), there is significant room for improvement in their implementation and enforcement, not to mention the level of compliance by both the private sector and the general population.
|Examples of solid waste legislation, regulations and policies:
· Beverage Container Bill (proposed)
· Environmental Management Act
· Litter Act
· Municipal Corporations Act
· National Environmental Policy
· National Integrated Solid Waste/Resource Management Policy
· National Waste Recycling Policy
· Public Health Ordinance (Chapter 12)
· Styrofoam Ban (proposed)
· Waste Management Rules
Such waste management challenges are not unique to Trinidad and Tobago; dozens of countries have faced – and overcome – similar issues, which means that solutions are available and well understood. Indeed, the National Waste Recycling Policy and the National Integrated Solid Waste/Resource Management Policy have adeptly outlined what needs to be done. The government is making some progress, for instance, with the Environmental Management Authority’s iCARE recycling project. A handful of businesses and some members of the public are also changing their behaviours, but the pace of change needs to increase significantly if the country’s waste problem is to be solved.
The waste hierarchy
The National Waste Recycling Policy and the National Integrated Solid Waste/Resource Management Policy are underpinned by the waste hierarchy – a globally recognised set of priorities for shifting from the current “take-make-dispose” linear, extractive economy model, to a circular economy model that is restorative and regenerative by design. The waste hierarchy has three basic levels:
- Avoidance – actions to reduce the amount of waste generated by households, the private sector and all levels of government.
- Resource recovery – re-use, recycling, reprocessing and energy recovery (whether through incineration or technologies to extract energy from waste, e.g. anaerobic digestion), consistent with the most efficient use of the recovered resources.
- Disposal – management of all disposal options in the most environmentally responsible manner (e.g. landfill, incineration without energy recovery).
The diagram, a more detailed illustration of the waste hierarchy, indicates the most and least desirable approaches to waste management. It is noteworthy that Trinidad and Tobago’s primary method of dealing with waste is actually considered to be the least desirable approach to waste management. This needs to change.
The highest priority – avoiding and reducing the generation of waste – encourages manufacturers and consumers to reduce overall production and consumption, while limiting the amount of virgin materials used in products. The goal is to maximise efficiency and avoid unnecessary consumption through behaviours such as:
- Redesigning products and packaging to limit the resources required
- Using recycled content as a raw material for production
- Limiting single-use products by designing for re-use and or recycling
If further waste avoidance and reduction is not possible, the next preferred option is re-use without additional processing (which itself would consume energy and materials, and generate waste). For example, items can be repaired, sold or donated to needy causes. Next up is recycling, through which waste material is processed to make the same or different products. Locally, we are still at the beginning of our recycling journey, and initiatives will need to be scaled significantly in the coming years.
If recycling is neither technically possible nor economically feasible, it may be possible to recover energy from waste material via incineration or other technologies such as anaerobic digestion. The feasibility of energy recovery for Trinidad and Tobago is worth further investigation: though not one of the most desirable forms of waste management, it should be balanced against future electricity generation capacity requirements, as well as the potential to free up natural gas for more profitable uses.
Finally, some materials may be inappropriate for re-use, recycling or energy recovery; instead, they require treatment before they can be disposed of in landfills.
Benefits of proper waste management
The case for proper waste management should be self-evident, but it is worth outlining some of the financial, social and environmental benefits for the country:
- Job creation and the development of new industries and businesses, including clean tech
- More efficient use of finite natural resources, with associated cost savings
- Reduced pressure on already stretched landfills
- Reduced terrestrial, freshwater and marine pollution
- Reduced flooding, especially flash floods in urban areas
- Reduced human health risks
- Increased appeal as a tourism destination
- Potential to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour in line with the broken windows theory (which holds that visible signs of disorder encourage further societal decay)
Where to next?
The last year has seen much debate over appropriate responses to the country’s waste problem, with several high-profile initiatives drawing their share of praise and criticism – but such initiatives are just part of the solution. It is too simplistic to say that Trinidad and Tobago has a plastic problem or a styrofoam problem. It has a waste management problem, and we are all responsible. No number of bans, private sector initiatives or biodegradable containers will have the desired impact without a country-wide integrated waste management system and changes in the private sector and citizenry’s behaviour. The time for action is now and every level of government, every business, and every citizen has a role to play.
This article was originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian Newspaper on Thursday 6th September.