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'Refuse' Cay

Garbage choking Refuge Cay

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor — Features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, August 27, 2014    

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THE scene at Refuge Cay, some 1.5 miles off the Kingston waterfront, paints the sordid picture of Jamaica's love affair with improper garbage disposal.

In the intricate root structure of the red mangroves that cover the cay, a wide assortment of garbage remains trapped — old refrigerators, clothes baskets, buckets, shoes, diapers, television sets, styrofoam boxes and cups, plastic bags and bottles, truck tyres.

The pile-up is worse on the side of the cay that faces the harbour and, in addition to that, the mangroves are sparse, brown and in an obviously less healthy state. Here, the number of brown pelicans, frigates, egrets and their chicks nesting in the trees appear to be more than those on the side facing away from the harbour, but it could be an illusion given the sparseness of the usually dense trees on this side.

In places, the roots show evidence of oysters, someone spotted a turtle, and a number of fishermen were busy trying to net the day's catch.

Those things, according to conservation director at the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), Llewelyn Meggs, means that there is life in Kingston Harbour.

"It is a prime nursery area for a lot of the species that we eat," he said.

But the life is struggling to survive amid the garbage and sewage that wash into it.

The images had visitors — a handful of journalists and representatives of non-governmental organisations who toured the Palisadoes Protected Area and the Kingston Harbour by bus and boat last Thursday courtesy of JET — jokingly nicknaming the area Refuse Cay. But it is no joking matter, for all along the harbour's coastline — from the high-rise commercial buildings in the west, to Rae Town Fishing Village in the east, along the Palisadoes strip and on lands adjacent to the Norman Manley International Airport and the Palisadoes Go Kart Track— the picture is the same.

Wide stretches of garbage washed from land onto shore and ultimately into the sea. At some points, the stench is overpowering, the water turns greenish/brown and there are clumps of green algae floating on the surface, a telltale sign of excess pollution.

The primary sources are the 20-something gullies and storm drains that empty into the harbour from all across Kingston and St Andrew. They carry domestic waste and sometimes untreated sewage.

"It's staggering what the Kingston Harbour has become," said Meggs.

Meggs and chief scientific officer at the Port Royal Marine Lab Hugh Small pointed out that the main types of pollution in the harbour are solid waste and sewage. There are occasional oil spills too, they note.

Other than International Coastal Clean-up (ICC) Day, a one-day international event sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, there is no widespread or sustained activity in Jamaica which focuses on removing trash from the island's coastlines.

It's for that reason that JET, the national co-ordinators of ICC, have initiated the Clean Coasts Project that will engage high school students and adults who live in resort areas with a view to prevent garbage from ending up on the coastline or, worse, in the sea.

The one-year pilot is to begin in September and is funded to the tune of $34 million by the Tourism Enhancement Fund. The Fund is also a major sponsor of ICC Day, putting up some $7 million each year.

"We have acknowledged that the one-day clean-up is not sustainable, so we see the project as strategic in enhancing the visitor experience," said Christopher Miller, TEF's director of projects.

"But the funding alone won't do it," he continued. "We need partners because as we just saw, a lot of work still remains to be done."

JET's programme director Suzanne Stanley agreed: "International Coastal Clean-up Day is a one-day event and more needs to be done, of course, for the tourism product, but for Jamaica as well."

But while there is hope for most areas on ICC Day, the outlook for Refuge Cay isn't as bright. Small told the group that given the intricate weaving of the mangrove roots, removing some of the garbage "might do more harm than good".

Estimates are that each Jamaican generates approximately one kilogramme of waste each day, a total of some 2.7 million kilogrammes when the entire population is taken into account. Some 60 per cent of it ends up in the island's largest landfill at Riverton City in Kingston, according to JET. Some goes to the other eight dump sites islandwide, but much of it also ends up in the island's waterways.

"And this amount increases by an estimated six per cent per year," Stanley said of the per-day garbage generation.

Over 65,000 pounds of garbage was collected from 62.7 miles of coast during ICC last year. Sixty-two per cent of it was plastic.

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