Solid Waste Management in Tobago
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Solid Waste Management in Tobago

By Kamau Akili


One of the most serious environmental concerns for us in Tobago is that of inadequate solid waste disposal. From Charlotteville to Crown Point and from the Main Ridge to the beaches we can see garbage every where. Even our coastal reefs are being choked with garbage.

In seeking to address this problem it is important that we review the history of garbage disposal on the island. An assessment of the past is always critical in understanding the present and preparing for the future.

The history of garbage is the history of technology. One of the oldest and most difficult tasks of humans has been to live on a piece of land without spoiling it. One of the reasons for this is that in seeking to work and satisfy our material needs, humans produce waste.

The earliest inhabitants of this island were the Amerindians. Their method of waste disposal was simple. They placed their domestic waste in heaps or “middens” outside their dwellings. Most of this garbage was organic and biodegradable, and as such, garbage disposal was not a serious problem.

The situation began to change slowly with the arrival of the Europeans in the 17th Century. European colonization brought with it iron age technology and increasing populations. Even then, waste management was not problematic. As was the case with the Amerindians, most of the solid wastes from plantation agriculture and domestic activities would readily decompose and be recycled by nature. Even the iron tools and machinery would rust and break down over time.

On the plantations most wastes were recycled. Food remains were fed to animals and other materials, such as old lumber, clothing, etc., were utilized in various ways. Old lumber was used as fuel, old clothing as rags for cleaning. Black smiths would reshape iron to make new tools or machinery. Very little was wasted. Also, with most of the population concentrated on plantations the management of solid waste was not difficult.

With the end of slavery and the slow decline of plantation agriculture the situation again began to change. The ex-slaves and their descendants moved away from the plantations to acquire their own properties and settle in villages or around Scarborough. Solid waste management became a
bit more complex. It was generally left to property owners to dispose of their waste as they saw fit. Backyards and gullies were utilized for dumping. Around Scarborough, garbage was dumped into nearby swamps or into the sea. Garbage was still not a serious problem because as before, most wastes were biodegradable or recyclable.

As Tobago moved into the 20th century, the introduction of new technologies led to the need for more organized methods of garbage disposal, particularly in the Scarborough area. The importation of goods in tins and glass bottles slowly but steadily increased and so did the attendant problem of disposing of these non-biodegradable containers.

It was the advent of World War II and the arrival of the American military on our shores that ushered in a new era of waste generation and management in Tobago. The period during and after World War II saw a tremendous increase in imported manufactured goods and the application of new technologies in many aspects of life. This was the beginning of the throwaway culture.

During this time, the establishment of sanitary landfills became a necessity. In the 1940’s, a landfill was established in a swamp area along Milford road where Singh’s Hardware is now located. The garbage was covered with sand from the nearby beach. Another landfill was established at Roxborough. By 1959 however, the Scarborough landfill proved to be inadequate and another was established in the area of J-UC factory. During this period, garbage trucks were introduced and a local health authority established to manage the problems of waste disposal and mosquito control. By the late 1960’s the Scarborough landfill was again moved, this time to Friendship Estate where the garbage was covered with fiber dust from the coconut coir* factory, along with soil, and sand.

(*Coir is the separated and washed fiber taken from the husk of coconuts. It was used to stuff mattresses, pillows and furniture.)

The problem of solid waste disposal mushroomed from the late 1960’s with the arrival of non- biodegradable plastic as a packaging material, combined with the importation of a wide variety of manufactured goods to satisfy our increasingly affluent society. Galvanized iron buckets, enamel cups and plates, ice boxes, paper bags and returnable soft drink glass bottles gave way to the plastic bucket and cup, the refrigerator, the plastic bag and the plastic bottle. How many people can remember taking condensed milk tins and making them into drinking cups or rolling a square of paper into a cone to package channa or peanuts?

By 1983, the volume of garbage being generated in Tobago created the need for a new land fill and one was established at Studley Park under the management of the Solid Waste Management Company (1980) as part of a master plan for Solid Waste Management in Trinidad and Tobago (1977). The landfills at Friendship and Roxborough were closed.

The Studley Park landfill continues in operation at present, although a study done in 1989 recommended that it should be closed and a new land fill established due to problems such as limited capacity and the potential for ground water pollution.

Today in Tobago, solid waste disposal faces a multiplicity of problems including littering, inadequate collection and transport, the improper disposal of hazardous chemical wastes and a landfill that has the potential for significant leachate pollution.

(2) Solid Waste Generation and Disposal Practices in Tobago Today

Development and change in any society produces effects that are both positive and negative. The challenge we face is that of minimizing the disadvantages and maximizing the advantages to be gained over time. The rapid modernization that Tobago has experienced over the past three decades has undoubtedly brought significant benefits to its inhabitants. Several negative impacts have also resulted. One of these is the existing problem of solid waste generation and disposal.

A 1989 study of the solid waste generation and disposal situation in Tobago estimated that in 1989 approximately 15 tons of solid waste had to be disposed of on a daily basis. That was ten years ago. Today, one would expect that the volume of solid waste being generated would have doubled or even tripled as the “throw-away culture” becomes more firmly established.

The range of activities that generate or produce solid waste can be divided into two basic groups: 1) industrial/commercial practices and; 2) domestic activities within households.

The primary level activities of agriculture, fishing and logging produce solid waste. At the secondary level of processing and manufacturing, activities such as food processing, sawmilling, metal fabrication and construction, contribute to the solid waste stream.

It is at the tertiary level of the supply of goods and services that the bulk of solid waste is generated in the industrial/commercial sector. Fast food outlets, supermarkets, hardware stores, household appliance stores, hotels, etc. are generating tons of solid waste daily as they go about the business of attempting to satisfy the demands of the consumer. Much of this waste consists of packaging materials such as cardboard, paper, plastic wrapping and Styrofoam.

Households generate solid waste in the form of old appliances, food remains, packaging materials such as glass and plastic bottles, paper bags, newspapers, old clothing, grass cuttings and trimmed branches from yards and gardens.

There are four fundamental ways to dispose of garbage. These are dumping, burning, turning garbage into something that can be used again (recycling) and minimising the volume of materials that are produced in the first place (source reduction).

The practice of most households in Tobago is to dispose of their solid waste by placement in bins outside homes to be removed to the Studley Park landfill or by burning in backyards. Most pedestrians and persons in motor vehicles dispose of solid waste generated in transit by simply throwing it to the side of the road. Larger items such as old refrigerators and construction waste are often dumped over hillsides or along back roads. Recycling is limited and restricted mainly to glass that is exported to Trinidad.

One result of these disposal practices is that a large volume of garbage is deposited on the streets on a daily basis and the volumes increase every year. The responsibility of the proper disposal of this garbage falls upon the sanitation crews of the Tobago House of Assembly and garbage contractors who are contracted to collect and transport solid waste to the Studley Park landfill.

The Studley Park landfill was designed as a sanitary landfill. At this garbage disposal facility, garbage is tipped, compacted and leveled by tractor and then covered with earth material. These are standard practices at most sanitary landfills. The Studley Park site, however, has several limitations that significantly compromise its effectiveness as a sanitary landfill.

First of all, it is an unlined landfill. This means that there is no waterproof barrier between the garbage and the ground water. The result is that leachate can percolate downwards to contaminate the ground water. Leachate is liquid that is squeezed out of garbage as it is compacted. Leachate can be highly toxic depending on the types of chemicals that are present in the garbage. This is a serious concern at Studley Park since very little is done to separate out and safely dispose of hazardous chemical waste that finds its way to the landfill.

Another limitation at Studley Park is the inadequacy of the measures for the venting of decomposition gases. When organic garbage decomposes methane gas is produced. This gas is a flammable explosive and toxic to animals. Decomposition gases need to be collected and vented or otherwise utilized. This requires a collection system which should be an integral part of the landfill.

A third limitation of the Studley Park site is that of capacity. This site has constraints of size and shape and in the near future it will not be able to accommodate the volumes of solid waste it will receive.

There is, therefore, a need for alternative methods to deal with the volumes of solid waste now being produced in Tobago and a need for a plan to safely dispose of the greater volumes which will be generated in the future.

(3) Littering and Dumping: Hazards to Human Health

The improper disposal of solid waste (garbage) by littering and illegal dumping, is creating a situation that poses serious risks to the health of Tobago’s population.

Littering is a practice that is very common in this island. Examples of practices that constitute littering and dumping include: drivers and passengers throwing unwanted articles out of car windows; pedestrians dropping garbage at the road side; smokers flicking cigarette butts all over the place; housewives placing unsecured garbage at the roadsides or throwing stuff down gullies and ravines; businesses dumping garbage onto empty lots; and the dumping of truckloads of garbage and construction debris over hillsides and on back roads.

Such practices are not only illegal but are also contributing to the spread of diseases in our communities and run counter to efforts to improve primary health care. There are several ways in which garbage that has not been properly disposed of can cause serious harm to humans. These include: increasing the number of animal vectors; causing accidents; and polluting the air and ground water.

Vectors are agents that spread disease organisms. Some animal vectors are mosquitoes (dengue), houseflies (typhoid), cockroaches (gastroenteritis), and rats and mice (leptospirosis). Garbage provides food and/or breeding places for these animal vectors. Tobago is currently plagued by mosquitoes. The empty bottles, tyres, plastic cups and other receptacles that litter the landscape are contributing significantly to this mosquito problem and the corresponding increase in the transmission of dengue fever.

The spread of dengue fever is now a serious concern of the health authorities. In addition to causing illness and death in the population, dengue fever is also causing millions of dollars to be spent annually for hospital care and mosquito control. These costs can be reduced significantly if there is proper disposal of garbage. The same can be said for the other animal vectors.

Garbage that has not been properly disposed of can also contribute significantly to accidents resulting in human injury. Recently, one hotel reported several cases of visitors having to be taken to the hospital after being cut by broken glass bottles at a popular beach. The broken bottles were in the sea and in the beach sand. Broken glass bottles on roadways can cause accidents when the tyres of vehicles are punctured or vehicles swerve to avoid the glass on the road. Glass bottles can literally explode when crushed by heavy vehicles causing broken glass to fly in all directions.

Several diseases carried by air borne bacteria can result from garbage. For example, food remains and offal from the processing of meat or fish can function as breeding areas for the bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis. These bacteria can become airborne and contaminate food or can be inhaled or ingested directly, thereby causing persons to contract the disease.

Solid waste containing hazardous chemicals can pose serious risks to humans if not disposed of properly. Batteries containing lead can pollute soil and ground water and cause lead poisoning. There was the recent situation in Trinidad where waste from a battery recycling plant caused serious nervous system damage in children of a particular community.

Toxic solid waste requires specially designed facilities for disposal and under no circumstances should materials containing
chemicals such as lead, mercury, lithium and asbestos be dumped indiscriminately. Special attention should be given to the
disposal of containers of pesticides by the farming community and the manufacturing sector. Recently, a young man was seen in
Scarborough with a plastic bottle that he had retrieved from a dustbin and which had been used to store a hazardous chemical.
When asked about his intended use of the container, he stated that he was taking it home to "put water in the fridge".

School children have also been seen playing with used hypodermic needles and syringes taken from dustbins around
Scarborough. These children face the risk of contracting hepatitis or other deadly diseases.

The hazards associated with littering and illegal dumping extend to the plants and animals around us. For example, lighted cigarette butts cause bush fires with the subsequent destruction of many plants and animals. Sea turtles die when they eat plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish. Coral reefs smother and die when covered by garbage that blocks out sunlight.

(4) Towards A Sustainable Solid Waste Management Plan For Tobago

For most countries today, the management of solid waste is a major problem. For many developing areas, including Tobago, the ability to manage waste effectively is lagging behind the rate of growth. It has been estimated that less than fifty percent (50%) of the solid waste generated in Tobago is properly collected and taken to the Studley Park landfill (Tobago's only landfill). It is also clear that the volume of solid waste being generated in Tobago is increasing significantly as the affluence of our society increases, along with growth of industry and population.

The reality is that Tobago has a huge solid waste management problem with serious implications for human health and the natural environment. What are the possible options available to Tobago in solving or at least reducing this garbage problem?

One option is to develop more efficient systems of collecting and disposing of solid waste. A more efficient garbage collection system will obviously lead to less garbage being thrown into gullies and watercourses or littering the roadsides. This is therefore a necessity. It will also mean, however, that more garbage will have to be disposed of on a daily basis.

At present, the acceptable method of disposal is that of burning garbage at the Studley Park Landfill. This landfill will not be able to accommodate increased amounts of garbage because of its limitations. For Tobago to continue to use the sanitary landfill method another sanitary landfill will soon have to be established. This may not be a viable solution because landfills occupy land space and Tobago being a small island has limited land space available. If current trends in garbage generation continue, then we will be utilizing more and more land for landfill space.

Another option available is the incineration of garbage. This option may be attractive to some because of the benefits that can be derived. One such benefit is the reduced need for landfill space. The ash produced from incineration generally equals about thirty to forty percent (30-40%) of the original volume of garbage burned. A second benefit is that the heat energy produced by incineration can be converted to electricity. This second benefit is quite attractive for Tobago as we seek to reduce our dependence on electricity imported from Trinidad.

One must however be aware that incineration also has serious disadvantages. Incinerator ash can be highly toxic with concentrations of heavy metals and newly synthesized organic compounds. The disposal of this ash has to be managed very carefully due to the high risk of soil and ground water contamination. Another disadvantage of incineration is the production of toxic air emissions. Incineration produces corrosive acid gases and dioxins, which are among the most toxic substances known to modern science. Dioxins are so toxic that researchers have not been able to establish safe limits for exposure. Scientists have identified over two hundred (200) toxic chemicals in incinerator emissions or ash.

Studies done in North America and Scandinavia indicate that even with the most modern, state of the art, pollution control devices, incinerators still emit high volumes of highly dangerous metals and toxic chemicals. A third disadvantage of incineration is cost. Establishing a modern incinerator to serve the present and future needs of Tobago may cost in excess of 100 Million US dollars.

The third option available to Tobago in solving our garbage crisis is one that involves a combination of waste reduction, recycling, composting, sanitary land fill disposal of low toxic unusable garbage and the use of a special toxic waste disposal facility. Reduction of waste at the source is a very effective means of reducing the volume of garbage generated. For example, manufacturers can use less packaging and consumers can purchase goods packaged in paper or glass in preference to plastic, since these can be reused. This can be a challenge since a lot of what we purchase is imported and we have little control over the manufacturing process. If however, we understand that all the Caribbean islands face the same problem, then regional countries should be able to establish collectively manufacturing and importation regimes that can reduce solid waste at the source.

Recycling / Reusing is probably the most effective means that we can use to reduce the amount of garbage. Glass, paper, metals and even plastic can be recycled. Systems for the separation and collection of recycled garbage at the source can be established. Up to forty percent (40%) of the garbage now buried at Studley Park can be separated and subsequently recycled. This will reduce the need for landfill space considerably.

When a comparison is made between sanitary landfilling and incineration for the disposal of garbage that cannot be recycled, the disadvantages of incineration outweigh the advantages. This becomes very clear when one takes into consideration the fact that the residual ash from incinerators has to be buried. A landfill will still be needed.

With waste reduction at the source, recycling, a properly constructed and operated sanitary landfill, and a toxic waste disposal facility, Tobago should be able to properly manage its garbage in the future.
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