Climate change and the garbage dilemma
Plastic bottles, styrofoam containers and other debris are seen at Tinson Pen on Marcus Garvey Drive in St Andrew during heavy rain in September. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

YOU may hear a loud and consistent cry from frustrated residents if you were ever to travel across the length and breadth of Jamaica. That cry, a much warranted one, is for the regular collection of garbage.

The lack of this well-needed service results in smelly, rotten bags of garbage piling at residents' gates or by the community skip down the street. Now, you might be inclined to believe that garbage collection, a taxpayer's right, is prevalent or viewed as a priority in the land of wood and water, but residents have complained of uncollected garbage for weeks. While blame is being put on the solid waste team there are areas in which everyone can improve, especially where climate change is concerned.

According to the executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA), Audley Gordon, the country's solid waste team has received 50 new, state-of-the-art garbage trucks from the Jamaican Government. As such, Jamaicans are set to benefit from the "cleanest Christmas ever" coming next month.

"We want to give Jamaicans a clean Christmas because we owe a lot to them. To be honest, even when they beat us up a little, we understand where they are coming from and we never believed that they were unreasonable. We believe that we should be doing better and we believe that with the 50 new trucks we should be able to move the service forward in a better way," Gordon said.

Though a well-appreciated addition to the country's publicly owned fleet of garbage trucks, these 50 trucks are just a drop in the bucket and will not completely solve the garbage dilemma.

Gordon stated that just two years ago the solid waste management authority was said to have needed 100 new trucks to properly serve the country. The novel coronavirus pandemic has derailed a plan by the Government to increase the fleet by that number of trucks but as the country moves towards recovery there might be an even further delay to this reality.

"In terms of the general garbage collection across the island we do have a challenge — and we don't hide away from that. You will recall that just before COVID we were promised 100 trucks and then the pandemic hit. Nobody asked for the pandemic and the Government had to make some decisions, and that decision was to defer the project so that they could free up resources to fight the pandemic. That was quite appreciated and understood but now we are out of the pandemic and the Government has chosen to give us 50 of those trucks in the budget year 2022/2023," said Gordon.

According to Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis, it is quite evident that money has been spent on regulating Jamaica's garbage collection. In her introduction to her report tabled in Parliament in July, the management of solid waste in Jamaica, in particular the collection of garbage, has been a perennial public concern despite the significant expenditure of public funds over the years.

"Over the period 2016-17 to 2020-21 approximately $32 billion (approximately US$208.3 million) was allocated for solid waste management, with more than half ($17.5 billion) disbursed from the collection of property tax," Monroe Ellis said.

The auditor general's findings further indicated that Jamaica may be unable to achieve its national goal to manage all forms of waste effectively by the year 2030 — and that is a cause for grave concern.

So in the meantime, how does the country move forward?

If Jamaica is unable to manage its waste effectively by the next seven years, garbage collection will continue to be a problem. Garbage, including single-use plastics, plastic bags, plastic bottles, styrofoam and food wrappers, will continue to line the streets and subsequently be washed or blown into drains and waterways.

According to the UN Environment Programme, of the 800,000 tons of residential waste generated in Jamaica annually, 15 per cent is estimated to be plastic. That is 120,000 tons of plastic making its way into the waterways. This is very alarming.

The shocking amount of plastics which gets into the drains and gullies causes blockages which can result in flooding. Water stagnation then becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which are disease carriers. Residents of communities closer to these heavily polluted sites are at a greater risk of becoming gravely ill due to the effects of these unhealthy environments.

The situation has become so dire that the drains are sometimes overflowing with garbage. But with the well-needed monetary assistance from larger, wealthier countries Jamaica can acquire the additional 50 garbage trucks needed to properly service the country. Furthermore, monetary donations from these developed countries to increase public education will help the country to boost its knowledge-based initiatives on the role pollution plays in climate change, increasing its chances of meeting the 2030 goal.

Like the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change that was adopted by 196 parties at COP 21 in Paris, other countries can actively play a role in the fight against these increasingly damaging effects of climate change on other small island developing states (SIDS). Founder of the Caribbean Climate Justice Project, Dr James Fletcher, at a webinar hosted by The University of West Indies' UWI TV Global in April this year, said while climate change is an environmental problem, it is a socio-economic one as well.

"We do not have time. What we are faced with is a crisis, a catastrophe unfolding at a rapid rate — even more rapidly than what the scientists anticipated — and we now have to adjust our response to suit the urgency of this crisis," Dr Fletcher said.

Rochelle Clayton is a journalist employed to the Jamaica Observer. This article was published with the support of Climate Tracker's Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship.

Garbage piles up for several days in Temple Hall. (Photo: Karl Mclarty)
GORDON... we want to give Jamaicans a clean Christmas because we owe a lot to them (Photo: Joseph Wellington)
Rochelle Clayton
Rochelle Clayton

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