A new waste management system coming to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) offers a different vision from traditional recycling programs. Rather than exporting everything, local residents are looking for ways to turn glass into art, Styrofoam into beanbag chairs, plastic into fence boards and cardboard into compost.
This was initiated in part by a gas tank explosion in the island of Tortola's incinerator last November. The resulting fire, which took the territory's main disposal infrastructure offline, was the latest of multiple waste-related fires the Caribbean territory of 30,000 had seen in recent months. Hurricane Irma also left behind piles of flammable debris after it ravaged the islands in 2017.
Now, the broken incinerator had further exacerbated a problem that has long plagued the BVI and island nations across the world: how to handle their waste.
Following these issues, the BVI government signed a memorandum of understanding with nonprofit Green VI to implement a territory-wide recycling system in April. The new program plans to keep the majority of the waste on the island by partnering with local businesses and entrepreneurs that "upcycle" waste as raw material input.
"Islands are quite unique in terms of waste management because really we're too far away from markets to make recycling a feasible thing," said Green VI President Charlotte McDevitt.
A 2016 publication from the Inter-American Development Bank that looked at solid waste management in nine Caribbean countries found they "face similar challenges in regard to solid waste management such as increasing solid waste generation, changes in waste characterization, lack of adequate disposal sites and low collection rates." While this didn't include the BVI, many of the same factors apply.
When the incinerator was working, it processed about 100 to 120 tons of waste per day, according to Neville Allen, acting assistant manager for the BVI's Department of Waste Management. Allen is hoping to divert about 40% of that by taking plastic, glass and aluminum out of the waste stream.
"The main thing is to get these items out of the waste stream. So anyone that can process them, we'll gladly give them these items to recycle," he said.
McDevitt is more optimistic, aiming for 50% within the first year and 70% by year three. She estimates it will cost around $12 million over five years to build and operate small-scale material recovery facilities on each of the BVI's four major islands. The proposed facilities will sort and process materials for upcycling, composting or exporting.
For materials such as aluminum and iron, the price per ton is often high enough to cover the costs of compaction and freight, making it more economical to ship off island. For other materials that don't garner high enough prices, the BVI is one of many islands turning to local business owners and entrepreneurs to find innovative ways of using waste as a resource.
Some nearby islands have been able to make it work successfully. Barbados's recycling center, which started operating in 2009 as a public-private partnership, has succeeded in diverting 70% of waste from the local landfill.
Experts say the costs of implementing recycling systems on a small island are undoubtedly high, and the political will can be hard to summon. McDevitt said the rates paid for materials will be determined on a case by case basis to enable the best chance of success of the specific “upcycler." But she considers it unfeasible for private recyclers to manage the entire system including the costs of infrastructure, equipment, collection, outreach, sorting, processing and logistics.
This largely comes down to an issue of quantity according to Chris Lund, a senior vice president with consulting firm Gershman, Brickner & Bratton. Combined with the high cost of shipping, sending waste to off-island recycling facilities is rarely cost-effective or profitable.
After living in Guam for 16 years and working on projects in Saint Lucia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, and Palau and the Mariana Islands, Lund knows the value of finding creative local solutions. If waste is left to grow unchecked, it will threaten every island's most valuable resource: land.
"Eventually, that value becomes so expensive that we just can't continue to do it this way," he said. "We have to find alternative solutions."
Key role for glass
Both McDevitt and Allen anticipate taking glass out of the waste stream will save at least some money in the long run, since the material can damage the incinerator. Decreasing waste volume will also reduce the environmental and public health costs from the facility's pollution.
Glass is one of the materials that more easily lends itself to re-use, said Lund, including pipe bedding for construction, concrete, asphalt and sand.
BVI company Green and Clean has a glass imploder on the island of Virgin Gorda. For years, it has been making glass aggregate into items like pipe bedding and countertops.
Eva Roben, a contractor conducting an integrated waste management study for the Department of Waste Management, estimates the amount of construction after Hurricane Irma could drive up enough demand to use all of the glass coming into the BVI.
The problem, she said, is recyclers are only receiving a tiny proportion of the waste stream, since most of it goes un-separated to a landfill behind the broken incinerator facility.
"If we get separate collection here that would really be a major influx of separately collected waste that has to be treated," said Roben. "So they need much more equipment and infrastructure for that."
The most problematic plastic
While recent scrap import restrictions in China and Southeast Asian countries are contributing to a global reckoning for plastics recycling, it's a problem islands have long had to grapple with.
A 2018 UN Environment report found small island states "have been disproportionately more likely to enact bans on single-use plastics," with 10 of the 27 national bans coming from these countries — including Antigua and Barbuda, Fiji, Haiti, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
The BVI currently has no restrictions or regulations on the importation of plastic, despite years of advocacy from nonprofits like Green VI. Because tap water is not considered safe in the BVI, the material is even more prevalent — leading to what Roben calls an "extreme" quantity of PET bottles.
Some local recyclers are finding creative solutions while still struggling to cope with the influx of bottles. Carrie Wright, founder of local company VI Plastics, is working to make furniture out of recycled plastic through a process designed to mix different plastics together.
"Our business model is the idea of having an appropriately scaled manufacturing process for the volume of plastic that you have coming in, and then coming up with a product that uses that plastic in a revenue-generating way that allows you to sustain the operation," said Wright. "It's just a social enterprise. No one's getting rich. But if we can run a business using up the plastic on the island, then that's a win."
Wright said HDPE and PP are the most valuable for her furniture-making blend, but she ends up receiving far more PET than she needs because of the water bottles.
"The threat is that we become overwhelmed with water bottles," said Wright. "It clogs the system down, and we're not actually able to really get to scale."
Despite these creative efforts, the large quantities of water bottles and other frequently disposed items are still hard to cope with.
The landfill where waste is currently piling up frequently catches fire and sends smoke throughout the islands. Officials have said the incinerator could be operational again by the fall and are hopeful the new recycling program will start to divert some of that waste — but some believe it may not be enough without a deeper change of behavior.
"There's that perception out there that recycling is the solution to the problem, and it's really not," said McDevitt. "It's where the [waste] hierarchy kicks in. We need to look at reduction options."
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to VI Plastics as a nonprofit.