We've got used to 'the dead body in the living room'

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

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The story is told of a man named Ron Marshall who once purchased an older house in New York. It was a 65-year-old fixer-upper. His realtor advised him to make a list of the improvements and fixes needed and to get them done within six months. Marshall was stymied at the deadline. His real estate acquisition had cost him dearly and he was understandably short on cash. He said, “I'm broke now, but I'm a disciplined guy and I'll get everything fixed over the next few years.” The realtor countered: “No you won't, because after six months you'll get used to it. You'll get used to stepping over the dead body in the living room.”

As it turns out, the realtor was absolutely correct. Roy sold his house five years later having done none of the fixes he said he'd do. He got used to the “dead body in the living room”.

It feels as if we as a nation have got accustomed to the dead body in our living room. The dead body in our case being the garbage and filth with which we co-exist. It feels as if we no longer see the litter on the roadside. It feels as if we've simply accepted the ad hoc garbage dumps that have grown over time on our sidewalks, and we literally now just walk around them. It feels as if we overlook the sea of plastic clogging our drains, eventually making its way into the Kingston Harbour when it rains.

A few weekends ago we went exploring in our backyard. We took a drive from Red Hills, up to Rock Hall, with the aim of getting to Above Rocks. It was a quiet, cool Sunday morning. Despite the poor roads, the drive was enjoyable. It was a scenic route, the narrow road winding along through the lush greenery of west-rural St Andrew. Old cocoa fields told the story of disease and neglect. Majestic tree ferns, dieffenbachia, and colourful impatiens covered the hillsides, while the expansive valley rising into the north-eastern mountain range was the majestic and breathtaking vista that we enjoyed on the other side.

As we rounded one particular bend, we happened upon a sight that took my breath away. I gasped. Right in the bend was a huge, unsightly, nasty-looking garbage dump. There was no receptacle that had overflowed. There was no structure to contain the garbage. The garbage was simply dumped there. And, judging from the 'freshness' of the materials that had been dumped there, it seemed an active dump site. There was, too, what appeared to be medical/industrial waste in the form of latex gloves in the mix. All this was quite odd, out of place even, given the serene nature of the surroundings. It was most disturbing and definitely alarming.

I tweeted my Member of Parliament with a picture of this garbage dump. She promptly responded clarifying that she is well aware of that particular corner and that even though this was not in our constituency (we had crossed over into St Catherine North Central) she believes that there are private truck companies dumping at this site. She promised to bring it to the relevant authority's attention again. I was grateful for her attention to this issue.

But it got me thinking. That community is alive and well, with its own police station, a high school, a vocational training institution, regular public transportation, and citizens with modest, decently maintained abodes. So how was this dump allowed to flourish? How were the dumpers able to get away with their illegal (yes, illegal!) activities?

Perhaps we have simply got used to the dead body in our living room.

I think both we the citizens, political representatives, and even the police, have forgotten that this sort of practice is against the law. Yes, we have a law for that. Sections 45 & 46 of the National Solid Waste Management Act are clear on this matter.

Section 45: Every person who disposes of solid waste in any area or in any manner not approved by the authority…commits an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction before a resident magistrate to a fine not exceeding one million dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding nine months or to both such fine and imprisonment.

Section 46: A person commits an offence if he (a) throws, drops or otherwise deposits and leaves any litter in any public place; or (b) erects, displays (whether by writing, marking or otherwise), deposits or affixes anything in a public place or on any building, wall, fence or structure abutting or adjoining a public place, in such circumstances as to cause, contribute to or tend to the defacement of that place, building wall, fence or structure, as the case may be, and shall be liable to a penalty under section 53.

I think we can all agree on the following:

Litter means solid waste in any public place and includes any refuse, rubbish, bottles, glass, debris, dirt, rubble, ballast, stones, noxious or contained substances or waste matter or any other matter likely to deface, make untidy, obstruct or cause a nuisance in a public place.

Public places include every public highway, street, road, square, alley, lane, bridleway, footway, parade, wharf, jetty, quay, bridge, sidewalk, or verge.

Now, which authority approved the disposal of garbage in the manner I described at that location specified?

The act in Section 53 prescribes the action that can be taken when someone is found to be in breach of this law:

Where an authorised officer finds a person on any occasion and has reason to believe that on occasion that person is committing or has committed an offence to which this section applies, he may serve that person with the prescribed notice in writing offering the discharge of any liability to conviction of that offence by payment of a fixed penalty under this section...

How, then, has this dump been allowed to flourish? How were the dumpers able to get away with their illegal activities?

I know, and we all know, that the scene I've described in St Catherine North Central is neither a one-off situation, nor is it unique. There is another flourishing dump site on a vacant lot adjacent to a police station in west-rural St Andrew, right in the heart of the commercial centre of that community. The sidewalk on the left-hand side of lower South Camp Road heading south is a de facto dump site now, which is periodically cleared, but remains an active dump site right on the side of the main road, near to a playground established for the enjoyment of the community. We have got used to the dead body in the living room.

There is obviously a need to enforce the law where littering and dumping are concerned. People do what they know they'll get away with. But there is also room for addressing the root causes of the behaviour that makes it OK for private residents to dispose of their waste in areas not prescribed as dump sites under the law.

Why do they do this? Until collection of garbage is regular and predictable people will take whatever steps they can to get their waste out of their immediate vicinity. Behold the ad hoc dump site on the side of the road. Perhaps placement of public skips to contain waste in a prescribed manner at specific locations would obviate the practice of establishing these ad hoc dumps. Of course, placement of public skips would have to be done with the commensurate public education programme which shows citizens how to use them properly and how to containerise their waste. And, these too would have to be emptied regularly and predictably to prevent overflow and the lighting of fires in the skips to deal with excess garbage.

It's time to wake up and deal with the body that has been lying in our living room for too long now.

Kelly McIntosh is a supply chain manager. Send comments to the Observer or kkmac218@gmail.com.




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