Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Down in the dumps

During the day of 5 December 1952, a dry smoky fog, not particularly dense, was seen over London. This was an era in which most homes were heated by coal fires and such fogs were not unusual. However, as night fell, anticyclonic weather patterns caused the fog to thicken and visibility dropped to a few metres. The fog brought road, air and rail transport to a virtual standstill.

The smoke-like pollution was so toxic it led to at least 4,000 deaths and was even reported to have choked cows to death in the fields. The response was a series of regulations to enforce clean fuels in urban areas, and combined with the widespread use of central heating, this kind of smog has now become a thing of the past in the UK.

We cannot yet know the long-term health impacts of the Beetham Landfill fires, let alone the economic impact of closed places of work. And the Solid Waste Management Co. (SWMCOL) has already announced that the Beetham landfill is temporarily closed. Whilst this is a welcome gesture, it’s hard to see what impact this will have on air quality: closing the facility doesn’t remove the millions of tonnes of toxic waste and nor does it stop fires from being lit.

As I learned recently from an article titled “How to Fail Absolutely Everyone“, the Beetham landfill exists because “a decision was made to direct garbage to the Beetham site until a more permanent solution could be determined”. In 1980. Of course, no one wants a landfill on their doorstep, so I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to find a site. But as well as being poorly located on the doorstep of the capital city, the Beetham landfill is unlined, which means that contaminated run-off seeps into the groundwater and goes directly into adjacent Caroni Swamp.

This might explain why, if you click on “Successes” on the SWMCOL website it says “the page you have requested is not available”.

One of the oddest things about this country that strikes the visitor is the fact that it’s almost impossible to recycle anything. At first, it’s physically difficult to bring yourself to chuck a wine bottle or paper into a bin, but you quickly adapt. And then, when you travel home you remember that rubbish is something you’re supposed to sort carefully into different categories.

Germany and Austria recycle over 60 per cent of their municipal waste; the UK’s figure is closer to 40 per cent (and rising every year). In T&T it’s close to zero.

One of the challenges is the economics — for small island states the value of recycled waste is limited by scale compared with that in larger countries; however, the current situation has considerable health, economic and environmental costs which may not have been measured.

A recycling industry would generate employment — the Beetham “hustlers” could be working in a formal industry with their health, safety and well-being taken care of. Furthermore, properly managed waste is an energy source: nearly 50 per cent of Sweden’s waste is converted to energy. Even for energy-rich T&T it might be better to convert waste to power and export the valuable hydrocarbons.

It’s no surprise that people are worried by the haze that hangs over Port of Spain; but let’s change the conversation. Could this great smog be the spur to take action, to create a recycling industry and to develop cutting edge waste management? There is nothing to stop this country, with its engineering and energy expertise, from becoming a world leader in the field.

* Arthur Snell is the British

High Commissioner

to Trinidad and Tobago