This is the fourth and final installment of a Source series on recycling in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Earlier installments discussed the roles of government, business and individuals in recycling in the USVI.
In 2018, Virgin Islands Senate considered a bill to authorize the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority to plan and construct facilities for comprehensive recycling. One issue that troubled lawmakers, however, was an absence of current data. What exactly are the materials in our landfills that can be recycled?
That question was answered in detail 10 years ago when the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority contracted with a solid waste management consultant to produce an extensive analysis of what ends up in our landfills. That report, “2009 Waste Stream Characterization Study,” spelled out what Virgin Islanders collectively throw away.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the University of the Virgin Islands collaborated to update that study.
“Working with our federal, territory and education partners, this study will help create environmentally and economically sustainable long-term waste management strategies, including waste reduction and recycling programs,” said EPA Regional Administrator Pete Lopez.
In May, Greg Guannel, director of UVI’s Caribbean Green Technology Center, worked for four days with a team from the EPA to sort through more than 5,000 pounds of waste from the Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas, while another team followed the same process at the Anguilla Landfill on St. Croix.
The results of this study have not yet been published, but one expert believes it’s now time to take the next step.
“We’ve got really good data on the categories in the waste stream. Now we need to look at the models of what other places have done,” said Gary Ray, an environmental scientist who served as a member of the Waste Management Authority’s Citizens Advisory Committee several years ago.
“Over the past three decades, comprehensive recycling has been done in so many island environments of various sizes, with populations of a couple of thousand to those with tens of thousands,” said Ray. He has looked at a number of facilities in several states and has a good idea of what would work in the Virgin Islands.
He believes that if funding was in place, a group of committed engineers and stakeholders could outline a plan for the territory within a matter of a couple of days.
“It begins with the idea that everybody takes responsibility for their own waste and practice source separation,” said Ray. “That means instead of throwing your food waste away, you take out the food waste. You might put it in the freezer until you can go to the processing center, or you might compost it. Once the food waste is removed, what remains isn’t very smelly. You also separate out the paper, metals, and plastics, and put them in separate containers.”
Ray admitted that residents will need to get accustomed to the idea of separating their waste, but “once they get used to it, they’ll be glad to get rid of the smelly garbage from their kitchens.”
He added that, “After a week or two, you bring the paper bags or boxes of separated material to a processing site, which is more than [just] a series of dumpsters. You need a couple of acres enclosed by a fence with a separate entrance and an exit for easy traffic flow. Inside is one long building separated into segments; each segment is for one type of waste – paper, glass, plastic, aluminum cans. At each one, you unload your box or bag.”
The environmental scientist explained, “The last part is an enclosed bin for non-recyclable materials – plastic bottle caps, shrink wrap. You buy, for a modest amount, a pre-paid sticker for these items, to cover the cost of processing them. Some centers have composting areas for people who don’t want to compost at home.”
“At the processing center, the collected material is cleaned, baled, and then trucked to a place where it can be shipped off island. For the system to work, it has to be open at least for part of the weekend when people have time off. On St. Thomas and St. Croix, you’d need about five or six processing centers. On St. John, you’d need one in Coral Bay and one in Cruz Bay. You don’t have to bale the waste at each center. It could be trucked to one central facility,” said Ray.
“And one more thing. You have to inform the public well ahead of time that the moment you open these centers, you’re going to close off the bin sites that people are accustomed to going to. It’s really not all that different from what a lot of people do now, driving sometimes for miles to go to a bin site.”
One objection stated in the past to a plan like this is that it will put waste haulers out of business, but Ray disagrees.
“We still need haulers to remove the waste from businesses, government and commercial facilities. We’ll need haulers to transport the baled waste from processing centers to ports where the waste is shipped off island.”
If residents all decided to compost their food waste at home, it would cut nearly two thirds of the waste stream. If all the recyclable materials were removed, it would result in an 85 to 90 percent reduction of the waste stream, according to Ray.