Where to next for waste?

For as long as anyone can remember, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago have had it sweet when it comes to waste. There is no charge for waste collection, unlike utilities such as electricity and water, despite its obvious importance to a functioning society. Some communities even have their waste collected as many as five days a week. Businesses too have enjoyed relatively low costs of (non-hazardous) waste disposal, with many waste management companies feeling the pinch of depressed prices.

The result is that we simply produce too much waste. As a country, we send over 700,000 tonnes of waste to landfill each year, according to a 2010 waste characterization study. An unmeasurable amount never makes it to landfill and this leakage goes on to pollute our land, watercourses, beaches and oceans.

To make matters worse, over 80% of the waste going into our landfills is considered recyclable, meaning it has the potential to be put to valuable use. The largest component of this recyclable waste is organic material (27%), but there are also substantial volumes of plastics excluding beverage containers (19%), paper (19%) and glass (10%).

It is easy to conclude from this that recycling is the answer to all of our waste problems. Easy, but misguided. Recycling has an important role to play and as a country we need to urgently and substantially increase our pitifully low rate of recycling. But globally, recycling is having a bit of an ‘awkward teenager’ moment.

In the last year, both China and India – for decades the most likely destinations for recyclable waste – severely restricted their imports of certain recyclables. This led to a glut of recyclable materials in the market and depressed the prices recyclers were willing to pay for their ‘raw materials’. Exports of recyclable materials to countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand increase significantly as a result, but one wonders how long it will be before they too close their doors.

As a result, waste management companies in countries like the UK and the US have lost the biggest markets for their waste. In some cases, their municipal customers were left with two choices, pay more to dispose of their waste at expensive local facilities or send it to landfill. When financial realities hit home, there is usually only one answer.

What does this have to do with Trinidad and Tobago? The reality is, aside from glass and some paper, there is precious little recycling that actually takes place on our shores. The plastics, aluminium cans, and Tetra Paks collected by programmes such as iCARE need to be shipped overseas to be recycled. Without viable markets and robust prices, these exports will not be economically viable and the waste will end up in our landfills and dump sites after all.

So, putting all of our focus on recycling is risky. A singular focus on recycling also ignores the first two levels of 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. These two levels refer to reducing the generation of waste in the first place and reusing products where possible and eliminating unnecessary single use items.

Supermarkets are often cited as using excess packaging in their fresh fruit and vegetables. In many (but not all) cases this is justified; packaging plays a vital role in reducing food waste. But there is a lot of room for improvement. Large companies can influence the behaviour of their suppliers through their buying power. This is clearly demonstrated in their ability to secure preferable pricing, so why not use this leverage to demand less wasteful packaging? This may even lead to cost reductions as suppliers use less raw materials. Customers who choose to walk with reusable bags, cutlery or cups have a similar effect.

But it is not fair to pick on retailers alone; as customer facing businesses, they are easy targets. Manufacturers also have substantial waste footprints and too few are taking steps to reduce them. It is notable that the local operations of two multinational companies have taken impressive strides towards zero waste to landfill targets. These types of efforts should be praised and encouraged. It is time for local businesses to follow their lead.

As was said in a previous article, ‘Trinidad and Tobago does not just have a plastic problem, or a Styrofoam problem, it has a waste management problem, and we are all responsible. It will not be solved without a country-wide integrated waste management system and drastic changes in the private sector and citizenry’s behaviour’.

This article was originially published in the Trinidad Express Newspaper on 1st May 2019.

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