Despite all the talk of the new "green economy" and the hype surrounding anything eco-friendly, the man on the street may still find it difficult to define recycling.
Recycling is simply the repurposing of any waste material into a new product. On a very basic level, even when you turn an empty plastic bottle into a storage container at home you have recycled because you have given a waste product new life. A more sophisticated example is the use of old paper to manufacture new paper products.
The benefits of recycling are numerous. When waste products are converted into new and useful forms it reduces our use of raw materials and therefore slows the destruction of our natural resources. Recycling can also be very cost-effective as it can be cheaper to manufacture a product from a waste input in certain instances.
Are We There Yet? Recycling in Trinidad and Tobago
Our perennial flooding problem and the vast number of plastic containers and other forms of refuse that surface at even the hint of rain should be enough to convince even the most removed observer that Trinidad and Tobago is nowhere near where it should be in terms of recycling.
Successive governments have all sought to explain why this is so. It is true that Trinidad and Tobago has been blessed with an abundance of oil and the offshoot of this has had a major impact on our environmental footprint. The business of extracting this natural resource and turning it into revenue-producing streams is in itself a messy undertaking. Add to this the increased standard of living and access to consumer goods made possible by these same revenue flows and it is easy to see why Trinidad and Tobago has an excess of waste products to handle.
In recognition of these challenges, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago established SWMCOL in 1980 to deal with the management of solid waste. Attempts to regulate and implement a system for recycling began as far back as the early eighties but never took off because of a general lack of interest and a lack of government incentives to stimulate this interest.
In the early nineties a programme for the export of waste paper for the purpose of recycling was introduced by SWMCOL and marketed to commercial institutions such as banks, government ministries and schools. This initiative resulted in capturing a substantial amount of waste paper for recycling over time.
Successive governments have also taken on the role of spreading public awareness on the evils of pollution.
The "Charlie Campaign" of the 1980s was sustained for some time and sought to make citizens aware that littering was not acceptable. The most recent government campaign "Clean Up and Beautify" was undertaken by the current Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar. However, these initiatives still appear to be sporadic when what is needed is a comprehensive and sustainable approach to recycling and its related issues.
A series of patchwork recycling programmes stand testament to the inconsistent nature of T&T's approach to recycling. In the absence of a national stance on environmental policy our future looks grim. Recycling must be recognised as the fulcrum upon which a sound waste management system is built. It cannot be treated as an add-on project, which seems to be the prevailing approach.
A Vision for Environmental Policy in T&T
The trend in first world countries is to move towards an approach called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) or Product Stewardship. This is based on the concept that the "polluter pays" by forcing manufacturers to think about what happens to their product after it is used. The manufacturer is mandated to include the cost of disposal into the cost of production.
This creates an incentive to develop packaging that can be reused or recycled or initiatives to take back useless end products from consumers. The intention was to generate environmentally sound solutions as far as possible ahead of the waste stage, by thinking about how products will be disposed of when they are being manufactured and not just after they become useless.
In pure EPR the customer pays nothing extra for recycling, although presumably those costs may be folded into the price of new products. Forcing manufacturers to take responsibility of used products is crucial, as that's where the incentive to reduce overall materials and toxins in their products becomes relevant.
One of the most critical aspects of developing a robust recycling infrastructure in Trinidad and Tobago is around the regulation of companies that offer recycling services. It is imperative that government steps in to prevent individuals and companies from profiteering within the industry. All companies who offer recycling services must be properly certified and audited to ensure they are capable of handling the jobs they tender to do.
To help the public recognise those who are certified from those who are not the government should develop and maintain a public database on all waste management/recycling companies. The database must detail all relevant certification, audit details and material handling capability of each individual company at a minimum. There is currently no comprehensive resource that details such information and the public is forced to rely on contacting companies themselves and are at the mercy of such companies for information and guidance which may not be entirely accurate or unbiased.
A good example of this is the recycling of electronic waste or e-waste. Improper disposal of e-waste is detrimental to our national health through leeching of a number of toxins into our environment. Our nation's ratification status to the Basel Convention, with the Environmental Management Authority as the designated regulatory body, mandates that there should at least be some standard criteria or permit system for companies performing such operations. Yet any company can claim certification without a demonstrable and transparent process.
There have been start and stop attempts of creating a comprehensive policy on the environment and recycling from as far back as the 1980s. The curse of oil and wealth has been used to explain every social ill from escalating crime to pollution, but how long can we sit back and accept this as our fate? Isn't it time our government delivers?