This year, my family and I decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean: we spent our days under the sun walking on fine white sand enjoying the weather and delicious food. Everything was just like a postcard, except for one detail – trash on beaches.
Although waste management may seem easy like child’s play, it is actually quite complicated!
We are used to watching waste disappear when garbage trucks pass in front of our door to take away the things we do not want anymore, things that smell bad and are not useful.
Although the job seems easy, very often we do not realize the true cost that waste management implies. On islands, the case is even more complicated because land is limited and nobody wants that trash to end up in their backyard.
To collect, sort, treat, and dispose waste in an environmentally responsible manner, is often very expensive. Countries that are major tourist destinations have to manage their own trash and that of tourists that go there to enjoy the beauty of the country’s landscapes.
This increases the challenges to solid waste management, which in the Caribbean countries are significant. In many countries, collection is the responsibility of public institutions and is therefore covered within the national budget. These institutions, for several reasons, face difficulties ensuring the collection of all solid waste. Reasons for these difficulties may include the following: lack of garbage trucks to ensure the adequate frequency of collection, terrain which makes accessing certain areas difficult, or, as in the case of the Bahamas, where the archipelagic configuration increases the logistical challenges of serving those populations.
In addition, many countries lack recycling or reuse policies, which means that waste like glass or plastic containers, food leftovers, or even batteries end up in an open dump. And yes, I meant an open dumpsite: In many Caribbean countries there is still no adequate final disposal site in which solid waste can be disposed in a safe way for its citizens and the environment.
Waste is not adequately disposed either because it does not make it to the appropriate final disposal site (ending up in rivers, sewage systems, and on beaches) or because the final disposal site is inadequate (an open air dumpsite, for instance).
A lack of an adequate final disposal site has a negative impact on public health and the environment. Open air dumpsites are usually vulnerable to both intentional and unintentional fires which generate toxic smoke. In other cases, waste itself can be a hazard to the ecosystems–a good example of this is the negative impact that plastic has on marine ecosystems.
Caribbean governments are conscious about the challenges they face and several countries have taken concrete actions to create sustainable waste management systems. For example, Belize and Barbados have final disposal sites with high environmental standards were solid waste is handled adequately and safely. Barbados also promotes recycling by introducing a refundable deposit on beverage containers. In Haiti and Guyana governments have forbidden nationwide the use of Styrofoam containers (known as telgopor, icopor, plumavit, tecnopor and hielo seco in different Latin American and Caribbean countries).
Waste is a global problem. Many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean face significant challenges ranging from operational tasks related to waste management (collection, sorting, and disposal) to financing and collecting fees for solid waste management.
Reducing, reusing and recycling are actions that can minimize the impact of waste disposal on our natural resources. These actions will also reduce the effort and cost of managing what is undesirable: our own trash.
To learn more about the challenges and achievements of waste management in the Caribbean countries, check out our most recent publication: “Solid Waste Management in the Caribbean.”