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Turning waste into gold

Published: 
Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Handbook of Solid Waste Management by Frank Kreith defines a sanitary landfill as, “An engineered method of disposing of solid waste on land in a manner that protects human health.”

With T&T’s landfills estimated to be at full capacity even as increasing amounts of litter continue to pollute our open spaces and water-courses, Public Utilities Minister Robert Le Hunte has vowed to monetise this country’s garbage as he works to, “turn waste into gold.”

Le Hunte explained, “The idea is to change from dump sites to engineered landfills.”

With T&T registering a population of 1.4 million, officials at the Solid Waste Management Company Ltd (SWMCOL) estimated that waste generated per capita amounted to 1.5 kgs per person per day.

They described it as, “a typical waste generation rate for a modern, prosperous and industrialised nation.”

Of the approximately 700,000 tonnes of waste generated annually in T&T, SWMCOL said two-thirds had been classified as household waste with the remainder said to be from industrial, commercial and institutional sources.

Increasing consumerism and an expanding population have led to an overall increase in the quantity and quality of solid waste that is being generated, leading private stakeholders and other technocrats to estimate that millions are being lost from T&T’s poor waste management systems.

Apart from this, large quantities of waste are also improperly disposed of and, as a result, they often end up polluting our streets, drains, rivers and beaches.

While experts in the sanitation industry agree that Trinidadians generate excessive amounts of waste, they also agreed that it has to be disposed of somewhere and in a manner that will not adversely affect the environment and its citizens.

In T&T, the most common disposal method of solid waste is the landfilling method.

As the name implies, the process involves disposing of waste in an open area where it is usually compacted and then covered with earth; hence the term “landfill.”

Landfills usually have a limited capacity or lifespan for accepting waste. In 2011, it was said the Beetham Landfill—which accounts for 65 per cent of this country’s waste—would have reached its capacity within the next few years, prompting authorities to consider an alternative site or method of disposal.

While nobody wants a landfill in their neighbourhood, Le Hunte acknowledged the problems associated with solid waste generation and management would not disappear and that, without action, it was likely to become worse.

More life or bury them

Le Hunte said the idea now was to prolong the lifespans of the landfills, with the overall aim being to reduce the amount of waste being generated that could not be recycled and which would inevitably end up in a landfill.

SWMCOL officials confirmed all of their landfills at Beetham, Arima and Claxton Bay, “have gone beyond capacity.”

Revealing its intention to close the Guanapo landfill and establish a material recovery facility and transfer station at the site, SWMCOL officials said they were also working on long-term plans to create an engineered sanitary landfill adjacent to the current one at Forres Park.

For Beetham, government has proposed to set up a waste-to-energy plant to replace the existing facility.

However, private garbage operators are critical of this move.

Operating for more than ten years in the field of garbage collection, one contractor asked, “how are they going to sustain it in the long run? It will work in the initial stage because we have volume needed right now, but we cannot sustain it as we just don’t generate the amount of waste needed to keep it going. It is not viable on a long term basis.”

Le Hunte said, “Instead of waste continuing to build up, the idea is to take this bulk waste that comes to the landfill and reduce it by increasing the number of recyclable processes that can be derived from it so all we will be left with is residual waste. This is where we will look to an engineered landfill.”

Contributor to GDP

As various agencies focus on government’s diversification thrust, Le Hunte said the sanitation industry was no different.

SWMCOL said, “A clean, healthy and beautiful environment is a critical requirement if T&T is to compete in the Caribbean’s tourism sector.”

They added, “public/private partnerships are critical to making this a reality as environmental care and preservation is not the sole responsibility of government but rather, that of each and every citizen.”

This was a view shared by Le Hunte who said, “We have the waste and we are exploring how we could partner with the private sector to enter into programmes with us to take our waste and generate recycling programmes.”

SWMCOL officials said government’s waste haulage contracts were valued at approximately $231 million per year, while officials from the Ministry of Local Government claimed it was closer to $400 million per year.

However, some of the private contractors expressed their anger as they claimed garbage collection/disposal was sometimes used a “political football” with only a handful of people benefitting.

One such contractor argued, “The sanitation industry in this country is like a lot of other things that is very corrupt. There are certain contractors making twice the daily rate as I am for what is effectively the same work.”

Confirming his garbage collection contract was recently reduced from four days to three days per week, the upset businessman added, “I am making about $4,000 a day while there are others who are making $10,000 a day for the same work at the same time.”

He said there was a great deal of revenue to be earned from the sector, along with the additional employment that could be generated once sustainable recycling initiatives were implemented.

Another contractor claimed, “Contractors tend to service a particular route on a fixed contractual basis for a fixed rate, but this service is compromised simply because of the rates for which we work.”

Salvagers and scavengers

Buoyed by the success of the recycling of plastic bottles which is currently underway at the Guanapo landfill, Le Hunte expressed a great deal of personal satisfaction at being able to fundamentally change the lives of some of the salvagers and scavengers that frequented that site.

Employing close to ten people who previously “haunted” the site in search of securing waste they could reuse or sell, to now sorting plastic bottles for recycling Le Hunte said, “It was fantastic to see how we changed these peoples’ lives from salvagers to one where they are now employed in a productive manner in this recycling facility.”

SWMCOL described the presence of salvagers/scavengers as a bi-product of a wider socio-economic problem.

However, they assured, “We have begun a process of incorporating them into formalised, more sanitary recycling systems through the establishment of a material recovery facility at the Guanapo landfill site. It is expected this kind of facility will also be replicated at others sites, so individuals in similar situations can benefit.”

In April 2016, the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) along with the Ministry of Public Utilities joined forces to launch the pilot project—Curbside Collection Programme—which was executed by the Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation. It resulted in over two million plastic bottles being collected for recycling.

Based on this, Le Hunte promised to introduce similar programmes at all other regional corporations as, he said, this had demonstrated the public’s readiness and willingness to participate in environmentally sound programmes.

Mass education campaign coming

The public utilities minister said that he was convinced that, “Public education is a key component.”

This was echoed by the private contractors who said, “A mass education campaign needs to take place at the primary school level as well as in the kindergarten schools because we have a cultural problem in T&T. There is a disconnect between discipline at home and at work, as the corporate sector is already on board in terms of recycling paper and, in some cases, the collection of plastic bottles.

“If people are truthful, they will admit there is little to none of that separation taking place in the household which is where it needs to start.”

Le Hunte also accepted that education was critical as he said, “I cannot stop people in spite of the education, from taking their waste and putting it in the rivers, drains and waterways.

“As a government, we cannot stop indiscriminate dumping. This will require a paradigm shift in the minds and thinking of citizens and it comes down to each citizen making that conscious choice.

“We have to move people along the pendulum and into becoming actors rather than spectators. We have to live the change we would like to see and each of us needs to start changing our habits.”

Indicating their intention to reintroduce the “Chase Charlie Away” campaign which first became popular in the 1980’s, Le Hunte said it cannot be business as usual.

“We need some attitudinal changes and approaches on how we do things.”

Critical of how things were done before, one of the contractors speculated, “I think what is being done at the moment is the cheapest, and perhaps the best possible financial way to keep going.

“However, it is not the best environmental way.”

Urging the bottling companies in T&T to come together and form a co-operation specifically aimed at recycling plastic bottles from which they can all benefit, the contractor remained firm, “It could be done with the volume we are using. In the current scenario, these companies import the bottles which are the size of your index finger before it is expanded to take the product.

“After the consumer is finished with it, it is discarded. It’s not working its way back to be reused. If manufacturers were to take notice, they can benefit from the recycling aspect as well.”

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