EDITORIAL – Recycling efforts: All packaging, little substance

Recycling depots, such as this one at Foster's airport location, are set up at supermarkets across Grand Cayman. - PHOTO: MARK MUCKENFUSS

The trouble with “feel-good solutions” is they offer the illusion of progress without addressing the problem. Mollified by the soothing certainty that “someone” is doing “something,” we drift ever farther from any meaningful mitigation or resolution.

In recent decades, the practice of recycling has become a cornerstone of this edifice of self-congratulation. Much more than the simple dispensation of unwanted material, the thorough rinsing, diligent sorting and proper disposal of emptied containers, papers and other miscellanea has risen to the level of moral imperative – or so we’ve been told.

If cleanliness is next to godliness, recycling appears to bestow a type of godliness. How righteous we feel, dutifully emptying our bins in the proper container, playing saviors of the Earth. Whatever happens next in the grand circle of consumerism is no concern of ours. Having “done our bit,” we walk away with straightened spines and heads held high to generate another mountain of waste.

The insufficiency of this “solution” is apparent to anyone who steps foot on Cayman’s beaches. Despite public awareness campaigns, strategically placed receptacles and the (apparently perfectly acceptable) public shaming of anyone gauche enough to toss an errant bottle in the trash, our beautiful island, like so many others, increasingly is being inundated with plastic waste.

That is due to a simple, immutable fact: Without adequate facilities, and a bottom-line (i.e., dollars and cents) incentive to transform mountains of “recyclables” into usable products, no number of congregants in the church of recycling can turn used plastics, paper and glass into anything but trash.

Developed nations have known this fact for decades. For a while, China stepped into the breach, importing more than half the world’s plastic “recycling” (including an estimated two-thirds of plastic “recyclables” from both the U.S. and the U.K.) for countries unwilling or unable to do the work themselves. For a while, China had both the capacity and the need for the materials, which were used in manufacturing – well, some of them, at least.

The dirty and otherwise inferior material – tons and tons of it – was left to pile up, forming unsafe, unsightly and unsanitary mountains of trash.

Now, even China is unwilling to play the world’s garbage collector. The country is closing its doors to plastic waste, throwing first-world Earth-first do-gooders into a bit of a spin.

On a much smaller scale, here in Cayman, well-meaning people have been stuffing multicolored bins with items, they believed, were destined for reincarnation, only to learn that our islands’ “recycling program” has been little more than a convenient myth.

As the Compass reported last week, until recently, the majority of recyclable material collected by the Cayman Islands Department of Environmental Health was left to languish in unprocessed piles or found its way into the landfill (by a rather circuitous route). In 2014, only 100 tons of the 277 tons of recyclable material collected was actually processed for recycling (whether, from there, it truly was recycled into usable goods is anyone’s guess). In 2016, 980 of 999 tons collected were processed, according to the department’s records. The overwhelming majority of that material – 832 tons – came from junked cars.

Jim Schubert, senior project manager for the Integrated Solid Waste Management System, told the Compass his department intends to expand its operations in the future, taking in even more material. We trust he will forgive our skepticism. Unless there is a market incentive for using recycled materials, all those carefully washed and sorted bottles and packages are likely destined to become yet another pile of trash.

We are not blithe about the problem: Refuse, especially plastic refuse, is a global issue that is specifically important to Cayman as the trash washes up on our beaches.

But we need more than “feel good” efforts; we need to come up with viable alternatives to remove this unsightly menace from our shores.

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  1. The real scandal here is that in 2006, in response to requests for bids to dispose of the post-Ivan scrap metal, CIG were presented with a fully documented, tried and tested recycling option. It was submitted by the New Zealand company who had been involved in clearing up the Cook Islands after they were hit by a typhoon and the information package, which I saw at the time, included a DVD of the facility they’d created out there.

    What CIG was offered back then wasn’t a quick ‘for profit’ clear up of specific waste but the creation of a permanent, government-owned general recycling centre that would have created employment and generated revenue. Potentially it could also have served as a collection centre for material to feed the WTE (waste to energy) plant that CIG were considering at the time. The proposal was sent personally to the Minister responsible and it was ignored completely – the sender didn’t even receive an acknowledgment. One of the ironies of this was that the head of solid waste at the time was an renowned recycling expert from Canada who would clearly have understood the viability of the suggestion.

    What mystified me then (and still does) is why CIG seem to be so determined not to move ahead on this, particularly now when even CUC has finally given in and embraced the concept of diesel-free power generation. If the people sitting in LA had been doing their jobs this would have been dealt with a decade ago and there’d be no need to write editorials like this.

  2. Sadly our leaders, in general, have long displayed little genuine interest in comprehensive and effective waste management policies/programs/systems. There have been at least two viable options presented to CIG over the past 12 years and they’ve been ignored or rejected.

    While many of our leaders like to think of themselves as educated, sophisticated “Statesmen” and claim to have the best interests of our islands at heart, the reality is that a sense of small-mindedness, self-interests and cronyism prevails. The only way that our islands benefit from any political initiatives is if those politicians or their “associates” personally benefit first! What a poor example to our future generations!

    While not every one of our elected representatives fall into the description above, the few who do not have, unfortunately, not been able to make a difference.

  3. I agree David that the Government cannot see what is needed and beneficial for the Islands. Three examples this morning, your comment ,, and the Editorial, and GM mosquito article . The Recycling and many more projects needs to be privatized and Government stay out and don’t bogg the Companies down with restrictions that would keep them from growing.

  4. @Kerith McCoy

    ‘Small-mindedness, self-interests and cronyism,’ sums the situation up perfectly. What’s holding back recycling seems to be the, ‘what’s in it for me,’ mentality. Well, this is what’s in it for all of us – if you don’t tackle the whole solid waste problem soon Grand Cayman is going to turn into a polluted dump that nobody wants to live on or visit.