During a student-organized panel at the University of the Virgin Islands on Saturday morning, waste management and sustainability experts discussed the threat that garbage poses to human and environmental health in the territory.
Among the panel’s more fruitful conversations were the ideas of teaming up with other Caribbean islands to make recycling more economically feasible, and starting local cottage industries that reuse discarded materials.
Working with their professor, Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria, students from an environmental science class at UVI prepared questions for the panelists, who included May Adams Cornwall, executive director of V.I. Waste Management Authority, Frank Di Massa, coordinator of the UVI Energy/Sustainability Project, and Steven Johnson, environmental compliance and hazardous materials officer at UVI.
At the beginning of the discussion, Cornwall said she was worked in government 26 years "and the V.I. still hasn’t taken our waste problem seriously.” Throughout the panel, she stressed the need for student and community activism to ignite the changes the territory needs to improve its waste situation.
“If we don’t manage waste, we’ll have more vector-borne diseases carried by rodents, cockroaches, and mosquitoes,” Johnson said. Abandoned cars are havens for rodent infestations, and the type of mosquitoes that transmit dengue commonly breed in water that gathers in illegally dumped tires. Mosquitoes are a growing issue now since chikungunya is in the territory, too.
Recycling tires – and recycling in general – isn’t cheap though. Cornwall commented that the recent effort to remove 250,000 tires from St. Croix, tires that accumulated over the span of 10 years, cost about $1 million.
“You have to have a market that will pay for transportation and cleaning the materials. No market, no sale, no reuse,” Cornwall said.
Other panelists mentioned that old tires could be used to make sandals or repair roads, but Cornwall said there’d need to be incentives to do so.
Johnson noted that the V.I. has a critical mass issue when it comes to making recycling economical and that there has to be economies of scale. Essentially, the V.I. doesn’t create enough waste to make it economically viable to recycle on a regular basis.
According to Cornwall, the V.I. government is now talking to Puerto Rico to see which materials make sense to send there in order to combine recycling efforts. She noted that glass is too heavy to transport and could possibly be used in the V.I. for such things as beach restoration. Plastics and cardboard, which are lighter, could make sense to send.
To reuse recyclable materials on island, the panelists emphasized the need for cottage industries such as a plastic lumber company that sources recycled plastics from the V.I. and wider Caribbean region.
Panel moderator Avram Primack, environmental data manager for the UVI Institute for Geocomputational Analysis and Statistics, thought there might be opportunities for small-scale engineering to help find business opportunities like the plastic lumber idea.
Audience members also asked about the potential for holding businesses accountable for the goods they sell once they’re disposed of, calling for laws similar to ones that have been enacted in Germany. For the territory, that would mean places like Cost-U-Less and Home Depot taking back cardboard packing or old electronics instead of having them end up in the landfill.
Di Massa recommended that the government pass laws requiring people to separate their trash, as is done in his home state of California, but Cornwall and Johnson said this method wouldn’t work here.
“It’s a cultural thing. People just aren’t going to separate trash here and they’d get too mixed up at the open trash bins along the roads,” Cornwall said. She said single-stream recycling would make the most sense but that organics should be kept separate for compost.
If the V.I. put trash separation laws in place, hiring enforcement personal would be another cost consideration too.
Cornwall said closing the trash bin sites along the roads is a must, since people and businesses throw whatever they want in them, including hazardous materials. They’re also an eyesore for tourists, she added.
“Next year is an election year for senators, so we need the public’s help to get waste management solutions on the agenda,” Cornwall concluded.