Waste management isn’t one of those “sexy” topics, I know. Yet, it is becoming an increasingly important conversation across the region. It is simply something that we have to deal with.
I had a conversation recently with Vincent Sweeney, who heads the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Kingston; and the Trinidad-based Patricia Aquing, Executive Director of the Caribbean Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA) – which last year celebrated its 25th Anniversary. I regret that I missed last month’s Caribbean Waste Management Conference in Kingston – and I thought it was about time I caught up with some news about it via these two important people in the field. In Jamaica, we did not hear much more than the announcement by Minister Daryl Vaz of a four-year waste management program in Jamaica, to be funded by the Japanese Government via UNEP – which is very welcome, and overdue.
So, was the Conference a success? Sweeney believes one big “plus” was the South-South co-operation. It was less about experts from developed countries coming over to give us lectures. There was a lot of constructive dialogue among countries in the region. He noted that the English-speaking Caribbean could implement quite a few “best practices” that have already been employed elsewhere in the Caribbean (yes, you may think the Caribbean is small, but for reasons of language, jurisdiction etc. we don’t always share enough of this kind of expertise among ourselves).
Aquing pointed out that there is a gap between the technical experts and the policymakers in the region. Waste management needs to be elevated to the political level at this point. Our policymakers need to be “clued in” to what the experts recommend as good practices, so that they can hopefully adopt them as policy. As a lead-up to this, the CWWA and other partners – the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and UNEP will convene a High Level Ministerial Forum for Ministers Responsible for Waste Management during the CWWA’s 26th Annual Conference and Exhibition in Guyana (October 16 – 20). Hopefully then, the political will start to develop from a dialogue that will include the Ministers’ technical advisors. That meeting will also start preparations for presenting a Caribbean Plan for Waste Management, to be presented to the UN Environment Assembly in December 2017 – which will focus on the overarching problem of pollution.
By the way, the regional initiative that was discussed at the Kingston conference is supported by the Dutch Government. The Dutch islands – the “ABC” islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao being the largest – were brought into the picture. Those islands’ Caribbean Waste Collective, which was discussed at the Conference, is an excellent example of actions involving a multi-stakeholder approach; but again, this requires buy-in from the policymakers (which the Dutch islands already have, through the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment). Patricia Aquing believes it could work elsewhere in the region, with the right support.
There was a strong emphasis on networking (which, after all, is a critical part of any conference). Most participants were engaged in waste management and recovery, but there were also academics, policymakers, technical staff, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations, small scale recyclers, external NGOs – and young people (Jamaica’s UNESCO Youth Ambassadors were there).
A strong network will result in helpful information sharing among Caribbean countries. However, “Information sharing is not a one-shot event,” noted Patricia Aquing, adding that the waste management sector is somewhat lacking in this area.
While some progress has been achieved, there is a need for countries of the Caribbean to share their best practices, the failures, the application of appropriate technology, and more. The CWWA and other regional partners will be working to support the waste management sector. One small step has been taken in this process. The CWWA and the Solid Waste Management Company of Trinidad and Tobago are planning a quarterly newsletter, starting soon. The CWWA will also contribute a number of Caribbean Case Studies in Waste Management to a publication being developed by the Auckland University of Technology on behalf of UNEP. We need more of this, but it will take time to build.
So, what are the critical issues to be addressed, now? There are some very specific problems, Aquing noted. All the Caribbean countries identified the disposal of used tyres as an issue of concern, given our limited land space and limited technical and financial resources. A regional solution is definitely needed!
Secondly, electronic waste (e-waste) such as computers, printers, televisions, cell phones, microwaves – you name it – is another growing problem. I remember, with a sinking heart, finding an old computer monitor washed up on the shore of Kingston Harbour some years ago. At home, we have an old printer and several old cell phones that we don’t know what to do with, now. Is this a possible opening for entrepreneurs to make some money, by dismantling and reusing some of the components? With visions of that horrific e-waste dump in West Africa floating through my head… I am not sure.
Finally, sustained public awareness and education at the regional and national level is an urgent need. I mean, all the time, continuously. There is always more information to disseminate – for example, on the serious health and environmental effects of chemicals and other liquid waste. This reminded me of the severe impact of agricultural run-off (an extreme example being the damage being caused to the marine environment by fertiliser and other chemicals washing down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico). And, indeed, industrial waste, such as I witnessed filling a gully in Seaview Gardens almost to the brim.
There was a lot of discussion about the specific obstacles that Small Island Developing States (SIDS) encounter with waste management, compared to developed countries. These include access to technology and financing; infrastructure for collection and recycling; the level of awareness and the “culture”; the ability to prioritise issues…and so on, noted Sweeney, adding:
“We are still involved with the bread and butter issues.”
“We are still at a basic level. We are still discussing what is the best way to dispose of our waste, and we struggle with economies of scale – we are small so it is hard to figure out effective and economically viable systems of collection, recycling and so on. We are better off than some other SIDS, here in the Caribbean. But the problem is that we have followed developed country models. We aspire to them, but we still don’t have the capacity to implement them.”
It crossed my mind that this applies to other Caribbean issues, besides waste management. Moreover, funding is needed to deal with all of the above. Talking of money, there is indeed some to be made from transforming waste products into a resource, if properly planned and organised, and even with all our limitations.
We need to move towards a “circular economy,” with the ongoing (and hopefully strengthened) partnership of the private sector, which is usually at the cutting edge of new products and services. And please – in developing such partnerships, Caribbean governments must – must – put in place the policy and legislation to provide an enabling environment that encourages the participation of the private sector. It’s no good if governments tax the importation of vital equipment (such as recycling machines, solar panels etc) to the hilt, for example.
“The opportunities are many, where small entrepreneurs as well as larger corporate entities can benefit,” said Patricia Aquing.
She is optimistic:
“I am particularly happy about the recognition that regional and international organisations are working to providing a “space” for Waste Management in the Caribbean. This should assist greatly in accessing international grant and donor funding to the sector to help advance the regional agenda, among other things. From the side of the CWWA, Waste Management is a pillar of our work, the other being Water and Wastewater. We are happy to be in a position to support what I consider to be a quantum leap in lending some coherence in the sector. We look forward to the outcome of the Caribbean Regional Plan for Waste Management.”
There’s a lot more work to be done. A great deal. However, the official recognition that this is a critical issue for the Caribbean could not have been more welcome. Now, let’s act on it!
P.S. If I hear about the “waste to energy” project envisioned many years ago for the Riverton City dump near Kingston one more time… I guess that is waiting on funding, too.
P.P.S. Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica!