by Larry Smith
During an informal discussion at a science conference on Abaco recently, the question of recycling came up, with one participant insisting that even the local breweries’ much-touted bottle re-use programme was not working.
So I decided to take a look at all the recycling efforts in the country today. Surprisingly, there’s a lot more going on than you might imagine.
First, a little context. These days about a third of the 250 million tons of trash Americans create each year is recycled or composted, compared to about 40 per cent of the average waste each European generates.
This puts the US somewhere in the middle of the major countries (United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France and Japan) in terms of landfill disposal. Only a few countries – Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Austria and Denmark – have been able to phase out landfilling.
But for small island states like the Bahamas, both land and cover material are at a premium. And landfill management is often inadequate, leading to frequent toxic fires, pollution of the water table, overproduction of greenhouse gases, and the spread of vermin. And illegal dumping creates obvious problems for tourist-oriented countries like ours.
Some 15 years ago the Inter-American Development Bank financed a multi-million-dollar programme to build state-of-the-art sanitary landfills on New Providence and other key islands. At that time, we were producing more than a quarter of a million tons of garbage annually, with New Providence accounting for most of that total. Volume is estimated at well over 300,000 tons today.
But these landfills - especially the big one on Harrold Road - have rarely been operated properly by the government or private contractors, as can be seen from the periodic fires at most dumps - which are a serious public health hazard. And the Harrold Road site is already nearing the end of its 20-year design life.
Experts say recycling is a worthwhile goal because we can’t charge the economically “correct” price for landfilling. Doing so would lead more people to resort to illegal dumping or burning, so we have to underprice landfill space and then try to persuade people to divert as much waste as possible from the landfill towards recycling programmes.
At least, that’s what happens in more developed countries. Here in the Bahamas, recycling efforts operate largely under the radar, with no government support at all. And - as with everything else in our small fragmented economy - low volumes and lack of awareness are huge obstacles.
Probably the oldest surviving initiative is Cans for Kids. This was started by recycling guru Ginny McKinney about 15 years ago, with the support of teachers from St Andrew’s School. “I suggested it as a project for the Bahamas National Pride Association but couldn’t get them motivated,” McKinney told me, "so my trash collection company - Waste-Not Ltd - took it over, providing the transportation, labour and premises to keep it going.”
Currently, there are 30 public and private schools and several youth groups in the CFK programme on New Providence, while up to 10 schools and the Andros Conservancy participate in the out islands. “We help them implement the programme, and then schedule pick-ups,” said coordinator Khonica Roberts. “We need at least one 75-pound bag filled before we pick up.”
The cans are taken to Waste-Not’s headquarters near the Harrold Road landfill where they are sorted by hand and then passed by a magnetic identifier - most soda cans are aluminium while food cans are usually made of tin. The aluminium cans are compacted into 25-pound brickettes and shipped to Florida about three times a year - representing about 150,000 cans.
But since Caribbean Bottling alone produces some five million cans of soda every year on New Providence (sending their reject cans directly to CFK), this is just a drop in the bucket. McKinney says her operation was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the United Nations Global Environment Facility to help with education and equipment, but adds that more consumers need to do more to keep it going.
Happily, the National Pride Association has now seen the light and is developing a model recycling programme for government schools that will target both cans and garden waste. The BNPA coordinator, Joanne Johnson, and Board member, Dr. Raveenia Roberts, are heading up a pilot project at Adelaide School.
On a 10-acre site at the airport industrial park, McKinney oversees a vast mulching and composting operation called Green Systems. This began six years ago as a partnership between Waste-Not, Caribbean Landscape, Bahamas Waste and New Providence Development Company, with the Atlantis Resort provided grinding equipment it was no longer using.
The operation chips up mountains of discarded wooden pallets to produce mulch, and processes thousands of cubic yards of green waste every month, which is mixed with spent yeast from Commonwealth Brewery and horse manure from Camperdown stables to produce a rich compost. Both the mulch and compost are used in bulk by landscaping companies and also bagged for retail at a range of local nurseries and stores.
“We divert tons of green waste and pallets from the landfill,” McKinney said,” while processing them into quality soil enhancing products for farmers, backyard gardeners and landscapers. This is the stuff that would otherwise create greenhouse gas and feed the toxic fires at the dump. There is no need for us to import mulch or compost. And we also offer a $5 per month service to pick up green waste from householders.”
McKinney’s interest and investment in recycling have been matched by Bahamas Waste in recent years. This publicly owned waste disposal company on Gladstone Road launched a biofuel refinery in 2011 that is now producing about 8,000 gallons a month, which is used to fuel the company’s 70-odd garbage trucks. The total investment so far is about $1.2 million.
“We collect used vegetable oil from 83 customers on New Providence, which would otherwise go into the landfill” Managing Director Franny de Cardenas told me during a recent site tour. “Our biggest customers include the Disney Dream cruise ship, Albany, Atlantis, KFC, Wendy's and Burger King. We also have a pending contract with Baha Mar. It was a big learning curve, but we are now one of the few companies in the world using a blend of 50 per cent biofuel in a commercial fleet.”
De Cardenas is less optimistic about the company’s other big recycling project. Bahamas Waste invested almost $1 million in a cardboard compacting and baling facility about three years ago, which has yet to reach critical mass. The company collects about 10,000 pounds of cardboard a week from a wide range of customers, including big retailers like Kelly’s and AID, the Burns House Group, Caribbean Bottling, Dolphin Encounters, Solomon’s Fresh Market and Centreville Food Store.
Some 600 tons of cardboard has been exported to countries like India and China since 2010 - but this is not enough to make the operation profitable at prices ranging from $75 to 100 per ton. “If we could get shipments up to 20 tons per month that would be economic,” said de Cardenas. “Most if not all collection is free, with customers getting discounts on dumpster rentals, but there is still resistance to change. In the US most cardboard is now recycled, but unless we ship it out, it all goes into the landfill here.”
Turning to hazardous waste, former BEC executive Da Costa Bethel has been collecting and exporting used oil for the past 16 years. On New Providence his customers include a half dozen or so auto shops and four big marinas. Individuals can also take used oil to any of the collection points he has set up on Paradise Island, at Lyford Cay or on Abundant Life Road.
Bethel says he ships three or four containers a month to the US, each holding about 6,000 gallons of waste oil. He also takes oily sludge from BEC’s polluted Clifton power plant, processes it to extract as much liquid oil as possible, and then incinerates the remaining sediment.
Keith McCartney of Battery & Tyre Specialists told me his company exports five containers a year of spent auto and marine batteries, with each container holding about 1500 batteries. Epic Batteries and Discount Battery do the same. Batteries contain highly toxic materials that can enter the environment if they are disposed of in a landfill or allowed to rot in your yard. McCartney says he will accept batteries from anyone.
There is no recycling programme underway here for electronics as far as I could determine. Marlon Johnson at BTC said the company was considering a recycling programme for cell phones, but was not ready to implement yet. Custom Computers ran a printer cartridge collection and export programme for several years, but was forced to discontinue the programme last year due to cost.
"Exporting was cumbersome, expensive, and very time consuming,” Pia Farmer told me, "and Hewlett Packard decided they could no longer accept the cartridges from us. They were not interested in dealing with US Customs, or paying the importation costs, and it became very difficult as Custom Computers, a Bahamian company, was expected to import the goods into the US.”
According to Farmer, “our main motivation was to keep these cartridges out of the dump, and to do our part in expanding a recycling consciousness in the country. We only use bio-degradable bags in our stores. All cardboard and packaging is sent to Bahamas Waste. We wish we could do more, like sending used computers and printers back to the US, but we can't afford to do it on our own."
The John Watling’s rum distillery at Buena Vista says they pay $1 for empties, which are washed and sterilised for re-use. And during a visit to Commonwealth Brewery, manager Teus Van Dieran assured me that all CBs product bottles were re-usable (except the US export bottles, which are only a fraction of output). He also pointed out a bottle-washing autoclave on the production line (which at the time was shut down).
Although the actual number of bottles that are produced and re-used appears to be a closely-held secret, Bahamian Brewery chief Jimmy Sands told me that almost half of his output of Sands beer was packaged in re-used bottles,while a spokesperson for Commonwealth Brewery said their re-use rate was about 60 per cent.
What is known is that the redemption of $2 per case paid by both breweries for used bottles has largely kept their product packaging off the streets and out of the landfill. Both breweries also give away their spent yeast and grain for re-use, and send cardboard waste to exporters.
The bottom line is that economies of scale in recycling operations here are difficult to achieve. And there is limited public awareness and no official support for any of the initiatives described above - despite their obvious social and environmental value. In fact, the government does not even have a waste management or landfill policy.
What we do have is a secret agreement between the government and an unknown company to take over the Harrold Road landfill. That agreement is supposed to include the sorting of recyclable materials in the waste stream, but no-one knows when it will be implemented or what the terms are.