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Recycling plastics needs to happen now!

Published: 
Friday, September 23, 2016

Instead of focusing entirely on the upcoming budget, we should pay closer attention to the changes we need and can secure without money being a problem.

That’s necessary given how much is spent badly, inefficiently, corruptly and unsustainably and will continue to be. It also takes forward-thinking decisions out of the hands of the Finance Minister, and puts them instead into people-driven adaptation, for which low oil price isn’t an excuse.

For example, door-to-door collection of recyclables, and the start up of a downstream industry using recycled plastics need to happen and happen now. And, it can, with little extra cost to the state.

There is already a National Waste Recycling Policy and a local government-level Integrated Solid Waste/Resource Management Policy. A national waste recycling management authority needs to be established and its functions and powers formalised by a Waste Recycling Act. Notice also that the Beverage Container Bill has never become law, and needs to be.

The icebergs will have melted away before all these laws, policies and authorities are finally in place, and are effective. I dare anyone to disagree.  

Instead of waiting out bureaucratic lag, the Government needs to wake up and realise we cannot wait. At this point, everything is being dumped all over our precious islands in what is the dead worst approach to garbage; an approach which countries from Finland to Barbados have already left behind.

The only post-consumer recycling we do is collected by one truck, now supported by Massy Stores and run by NGO Plastikeep, from 70 bins and 26 collection points, only in North-West Trinidad. Of that, what is exportable goes, the rest wastes.

Starting September 30, the Government can insist on an effective national programme of public education about what, when and how to recycle. This can be supported by the Green Fund, and rely on NGOs who have expertise in public education about recycling and who are ready to start this work. The money is available, and meant for this purpose.

The point isn’t just to educate about plastic collection, but about a different approach to waste management, which will cost little, and indeed cost us less in the long run, and in which everyone from poor to rich can participate.

Here, an education simulation centre, which can teach a generation about the process from beginning to end, separation of cans and glass bottles and what a low-waste outcome looks like for two tiny islands, is worthwhile, but we cannot wait on that either.

The same garbage trucks that currently operate can be used to collect garbage on Mondays and Fridays, even Saturdays, and recyclables from Tuesdays to Thursdays. All that is needed is for the same trucks to be power-washed on Monday nights, and rolled out the next day.

Garbage collection should really be the responsibility of local government, and relevant officials know this, but the struggle between SWMCOL and local government can work itself in and out of knots while we get on with what is necessary.

All the plastic recyclables can be taken to a sorting and cleaning warehouse, which could indeed be run by SWMCOL. Useful plastic material could then go to a private sector venture which will turn plastics that cannot be exported for use into plastic lumber for sale on the local and wider market. 

Jobs will be created with minimal public sector investment, and eventually when these plastic downstream products are bringing a profit, the supply of plastic from door-to-door collection can be bought by such businesses. I’m not advocating for a plastics industry that uses non-renewable resources, only recycled ones.

Burning garbage to create energy is an approach that has been batted about Cabinet. However, keep in mind that wherever this is practised, what is burned is not all garbage, but garbage that cannot be otherwise recycled, turned into new products or exported. 

The absolute majority of garbage is recyclable so beware of big-money, but quick and dirty solutions, which do not see energy recovery as the fourth “r” after reduce, reuse and recycle.

Imagine this vision becoming real within one year. Now, tell everyone, from the Prime Minister to your next councillors as they campaign, it must and it can.

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