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Landfill free society

Published: 
Sunday, February 26, 2017

Close down the garbage dumps and create a landfill free society. Sweden did it, and so can we. A landfill free society means that less than one per cent of household waste ends up in garbage dumps. Each and every refuse item gets turned into something else such as new products, raw materials or energy from biogas. A landfill free society has many benefits including reduced pollution, new economic opportunities and jobs. A healthy environment and jobs means healthy and happy people.

Worldwide the recycling industry is worth US$500 billion and it employs millions of people.

On the health front, the World Health Organisation released a report in 2016 that found that one in four global deaths is due to environmental pollution.

In Trinidad and Tobago garbage dumps burn regularly, releasing toxic smoke into the atmosphere. Toxic leachate goes the other way, into the soil and water table.

T&T’s garbage dumps are a far cry from bringing health or happiness to our people. The great thing is that we don’t need them. Zero-waste is possible.

I had previously written about a government commissioned report that found that 80 per cent of waste can be recycled and that only one properly engineered and well-funded landfill would be necessary. This projection now looks unexciting and unambitious. The Swedish model shows that 99 per cent of household waste can be reused. It starts at home where Swedes separate the recyclables from landfill waste.

They put the waste in special bins and then drop it off in designated containers in their buildings or streets. From here the waste goes to recycling stations which are usually no more than 300 metres from urban centres.

Now, the 99 per cent figure for waste recycling is a bit controversial. In fact about only 50 per cent of waste is recycled into other goods and raw materials.

The other 50 per cent is incinerated and converted to energy. Not everybody agrees that is equal to recycling. In Trinidad we have terrible experiences with incinerators. The two that I know firsthand are located at Mt Hope Hospital and the San Fernando General Hospital.

Both are temporary incinerators used for medical waste.

But they have been there for many years now while construction of permanent, safe incinerators drags on.

Both are health hazards with short burnstacks, no stack scrubbers and incapable of burning at high enough temperatures to destroy pollutants completely.

I once experienced the San Fernando Hospital incinerator smoke blowing over the car park. Watery eyes and a headache as the result.

The smoke blew into the building as well. I could only imagine what vulnerable patients must feel like when that happens. After that I came back to take photos.

This turned into a comical cat and mouse game with hospital security, while they attempted to stop me. Luckily one staff member was on my side, and gave me instructions on where security was so that I could avoid them.

A sad state of affairs when suppressing negative reports is more important than ensuring human health. But the incinerators the Swedes use are state of the art and produce little pollution. Or so we hope.

Incinerators burn clean once they are well designed and maintained but they are also controversial as incinerating waste creates greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming.

Burning waste in an incinerator to produce electricity is about as carbon intensive as burning natural gas. It is something important to keep in mind as T&T has the second highest per capita carbon footprint in the world.

Some hold that incineration and recycling are contrary goals. If a country commits to incineration it won’t want to divert profitable incinerator fuel to recycling.

Sweden appears to have solved this dilemma by encouraging more recycling while trash is imported for incineration.

Of the 50 per cent of household waste that Swedes do recycle, paper is turned into paper mass, bottles are reused or, second best, melted into new items.

Plastic containers become new plastic material and food is composted and becomes soil or biogas. Shops take back old electronic items and special rubbish trucks pick up hazardous waste and chemicals.

Pharmacies take back leftover medication, old clothes can go to second hand shops and large items like TVs and furniture can go straight to recycling centres on the outskirts of the cities.

The carbon footprint of incinerating trash is a good reason to refuse waste before recycling it. If consumers buy consciously and avoid products with unnecessary packaging that solves the problem before it even starts.

Taxation has many good uses. Tax products with unnecessary non-biodegradable packaging to discourage use. Have you ever seen a banana or onion wrapped in plastic?

Yes, tax those 100 per cent. If taxation makes a plastic bottle cost the same as a glass bottle, won’t that solve the unsolvable plastic bottle litter problem overnight? If you choose to pollute, you pay for it.

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