While people’s green efforts may end once they throw their recyclables into the multi-coloured bins at local supermarkets, that is only the beginning of the journey for those plastics and tins.
Generally, “plastic waste, when you throw it in the trash, will ultimately end up in the landfill, along with all the other materials that you put in the garbage”, Mike Haworth, assistant director of solid waste at the Department of Environmental Health, explained.
However, the recyclable material has a different destination. And COVID-19 has had a serious impact on the volume being exported.
Where does the trash go?
The waste that is separated and deposited for recycling makes a return journey to the US, from where it began life as consumer goods. It goes on a transatlantic trek from Cayman’s bins to its final destination in Florida, for distribution to various waste-processing facilities.
Haworth said the recyclables are shipped using the same routes as a lot of goods that travel to and from Grand Cayman.
“We use a broker in the States who basically manages the distribution of those materials to recycle facilities over there. And most of those facilities, if not all, are in Florida,” he said.But there’s no money to be made from this, Haworth explained.
“The global value of some materials such as plastics and mixed paper/cardboard is so low, there is no revenue from those recyclables. The collection, processing and shipping for recycling is a subsidised programme carried out by DEH,” he told the Cayman Compass.
It costs DEH US$2,500 per container.
But the cost doesn’t end there, as Haworth explained.
“There is an element of us having to pay people to take those materials and, certainly, pay for the shipping. The value of the materials doesn’t cover the cost of shipping. So overall the recycling programme is subsidised by government in terms of the budget that it provides to DEH,” he said.
The recyclables, he said, hold their own value within the market at the time they are processed and shipped.
“For some materials, let’s say, for aluminum cans… when they’re crushed and bailed and put in a filled container. It’s a container full of aluminum and has a high value. So that provides some income. For things, certainly like plastic at the moment, the value of mixed plastic is very low,” he said.
However, he hastened to add that even though Cayman pays to get rid of the material, continuing the programme is important for waste management.
“We are clearly showing we’re supporting these schemes going forward, because we’re willing to pay to do them,” he said.
COVID-19 impacted recycling
Haworth said there is community support for recycling, but COVID-19 set progress back in terms of how much recycling took place.
This also impacted the number of exports last year.Back in 2019, the DEH shipped 84 tons of type 1 and type 2 plastics, the categories that Cayman is able to process for recycling.
Last year, however, the tonnage dropped significantly.
Only 23 tons of waste were shipped in 2020.
“DEH received less recyclables in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lock down… except for glass bottles. The shipping of materials to recycling facilities in the United States was also affected by COVID and hence, less materials were shipped than in a usual year,” he added.
DEH, he said, is catching up with the shipping this year and has “four container loads ready to go”.
Angello Roye, recycling supervisor and acting operations manager, said there had been an increase in efforts to recycle waste, but then COVID-19 happened.
In 2020, 11 tons of cans were shipped, fewer than half of the 27 tons shipped the year before.
Roye said even with borders closed, the recycling, though smaller in scale, has continued.
“It’s just the locals [that are] doing the recycling, which is thumbs up because they [are] doing the right thing. We always think that it’s the foreigners that [are] coming and the long-term tourists that [are] coming in that [are] mostly doing the recycling. But we recognise that the Cayman population is actually recycling,” he said.
At present, Cayman is only able to recycle two types of plastics, type 1 – like water and soda bottles – and type 2 – such as milk jugs and laundry detergent.
However, Roye said DEH also collects used motor and cooking oil for recycling.
Last year, 103,200 gallons of motor oil were processed at the centre. He said used oil, as well as batteries, can be dropped off at the landfill for processing. Haworth also urged the public to recycle batteries.
“It is very important for residents to recycle batteries and not put them in the regular garbage. Batteries can combust if punctured and pose a major fi re risk for DEH collection teams and at the landfill. We have had two instances this year with punctured and smouldering batteries. It was only the quick actions of DEH and CIFS (Cayman Islands Fire Service) staff which isolated these and prevented any spread of fi re,” he said.
Battery tubes, to collect used batteries, are in all supermarkets and many commercial premises across Grand Cayman, he added.
DEH shipped 18.5 tons of lead-acid (used in cars) and household batteries last year.
The recycling process
A trek down to the Department of Environmental Health’s recycling centre can be an eye-opener as to where waste is collected and where it ends up.
Daily, workers at the centre spend hours sifting through mounds of plastic bottles, bags and canisters with the aim of compressing and packing them off to the US.
While Haworth and Roye say the public, by-and-large, follows the guidelines, they agree more depots are needed.
DEH waste stats
- Cans – 11 tons shipped
- Cardboards – 22.2 tons shipped
- Plastics Type 1 and 2 – 23 tons shipped
- Glass bottles – 382 tons processed on island
- Cans – 27 tons shipped
- Cardboards – 40 tons shipped
- Plastics Type 1 and 2 – 84 tons shipped
- Glass bottles – 392 tons processed
- 19.4 tons of lead acid & household batteries collected
- 18.5 tons shipped
- 103,200 gallons used oil processed
There are six depots located at various local supermarkets which offer options for depositing recyclable items.
Recently, Grand Harbour opted to close its recycling depot. The DEH is looking for another drop-off location.
For Dwayne Smith, a processor at the recycling centre, sorting through the waste that is deposited there can be difficult. People, he said, still deposit the wrong plastics for recycling.
“Our biggest problem is plastic. We get plastic more often than anything else. There is seven different types of plastics… people are supposed to [deposit] number 1, number 2 plastics only, but they send in everything,” he said.
Smith also asked the public to be more considerate when dumping material in the recycling bins, as workers have discovered dead animals in bags as well as spoiled food.
This, he said, leads to the recyclables being dumped because of contamination.
“It’s difficult because you have to sort it out. You have to separate the garbage out from the good stuff. You have to sort out the different plastics. Some of the labels you have to remove; the [cap] and the bottle are two different plastics. Most people don’t know that so they send the bottles in with the [cap] on which doesn’t really help [because] we have to unscrew the [caps],” he said.
For those uncertain about the type of plastic, Smith said to look at the base of the item.
Usually there is a triangle symbol with a number in the middle which identifies the type of plastic. He also asked that the items be washed before being deposited.
Once the plastics are sorted at the centre they are placed on a conveyor belt and sent into a machine which compresses them. The plastics are then stacked in shipping containers and taken to the dock to be sent to the US.
With Cayman’s plastic consumption outstripping its recycling efforts, the DEH is hoping people become more conscientious in their green efforts, to counter the slowdown from COVID-19 and reverse the overall trend.