Guest post by David Newman, President of the International Solid Waste Association
In the early 1990s I was in the Caribbean visiting several islands there to assist work for Greenpeace. Whenever we spoke to politicians leading those islands, they said to us that their key environmental issue was how to handle their waste. Waste dumped in a part of the island inevitably leached into the wider environment, the sea, and burning this waste caused toxic emissions. Tourists were disgusted by what they saw and stayed away, while local people had the cost of handling tourists’ waste, and the health consequences of doing it badly. And without the size of population or the funding to build expensive plant, let alone the know-how to reduce and recycle, all waste went to open dumps.
In 2005 I was sailing off the coast of Belize and we pulled into the bay of an uninhabited atoll off the barrier reef. What we saw was shocking: the whole atoll was covered in waste washed up from the ocean. A small shark was swimming among the plastic bottles and bags. It was heart breaking.
I am sure my shocking experience is one shared by many readers globally. Waste is the number one island environmental issue.
How to resolve it? The following points have become clear to me:
1. Population size and waste volumes outside of the tourist season do not justify large plants, such as waste-to-energy, anaerobic digestors, even mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plants. The key to less waste is waste prevention, in other words not allowing waste onto the islands in the first place, banning plastic bags and bottles, enforcing re-use of glass bottles, banning plastic table ware left by picnickers everywhere, eliminating paper towels in washrooms, and so on.
For example, collective provision of water through public fountains is successful in many places and eliminate an enormous amount of bottles.
2. Much waste is food or garden waste. Collect it separately and compost it, with simple, small-scale technologies. There are many available. Use compostable plastics where possible, for example, many cosmetics now come in compostable materials and can be composted, further reducing waste.
3. Some waste will be recyclable: packaging, newspapers and magazines, glass, aluminium cans, electric and electronic goods…
Bale it and send it to a recycling merchant or plant on the nearest mainland. An island does not have the volumes to build a paper mill, or glass factory or aluminium smelter; it has to ship these materials out and sell them for the best possible price. Some waste has a negative value, like electronics. In that case, islands should charge a recycling tax on them when they are sold or imported to the island, to pay for their recovery later.
4. Some waste will remain. It is unrecyclable, and here you need a well built and tightly contained landfill for things like building and construction waste, diapers, damaged furniture and household goods, ashes, etc. All this can amount up to 30% of total waste.
New methodologies to make landfills small, tightly contained and safe from leaching into the neighbouring environment are now available. No need for sprawling open dumps any more.
To do all this islands need to be empowered. When it comes to measures like raising recycling taxes or banning products like plastic bags mayors may lament: “I would like to do this but the law does not let me!” So our biggest challenge is to get the policies together and apply them to allow mayors to act. Then they need the money to implement the new system – but where there is leadership, money can always be found.
How islands treat their waste is critical to human and ocean health, so let’s not waste more time!