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Burning your waste

In 2008, C. J. Moore, an environmentalist conducting research in the USA, released a paper titled Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat in it he said that between 1960 and 2000, the world production of plastic resins increased 25-fold, while recovery of the material remained below five per cent.

Internationally sponsored studies have addressed global recycling behaviour and strategies to encourage collective participation in recycling programmes at the individual community level. Social scientists have argued that recycling behaviour is not natural because it requires a collective appreciation for long term residential community planning, whereas human survival instincts have evolved to be sensitive to short term survival goals. And that to overcome this innate predisposition to just throw away any used item, the best solution would be to exert social pressure to compel participation in recycling programmes. However, social behavior specialists have concluded that exerting social pressure is not an acceptable solution in this regard. They are of the opinion that social pressure functions well in small group sizes of 50 to 150 individuals, but not in communities numbering in the thousands or millions as in some countries.

How often at the end of the evening, do you as a householder, go through your garbage and remove glass, plastics, cans and other metals before collection? Research within the Caribbean suggests that though this practice is widely encouraged and promoted, it is not practiced by all and that in the lesser developed countries, it is even less frequent. The majority of items disposed of by the average family is not biodegradable and will remain in their original forms for generations. Drive through any community and you will see evidence of this activity. Dumpsters overflowing with everything from beds, car parts, refrigerators, and lighting fixtures . . . look long enough and you will find it. This collection of household waste eventually ends up in landfills.

When a landfill burns, the levels of toxicity are dictated by what is burning, and depending on wind direction, its impact on human settlements can be devastating. Consider the thick acrid smoke experienced every time the Mangrove Landfill with its thousands of tyres ignites, that does not preclude the other materials also consumed in the same fire. Consider the effect on any laundry drying on a line. Consider the panic some residents go through when an asthmatic family member finds it difficult to breathe as the thick toxic smoke chokes off the clean air.

Most people, who burn their household waste including herbicide and pesticide laden grasses, treated wood panelling, and plastic containers, do not realise how harmful this practice is to their health and to the environment. Current research indicates that backyard-burning of waste is far more harmful to our health than previously thought. It can increase the risk of heart disease; aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema, and cause rashes, nausea, or headaches, damages may occur in the nervous system, kidney or liver, and in the human and animal reproductive and development system.

The burning of polystyrene polymers – such as foam cups, meat trays, egg containers, yogurt and Styrofoam food containers releases styrene. Styrene gas can readily be absorbed through the skin and lungs. Internationally, environmental assessment impact researchers including the United States Environmental Protection Agency are suggesting that based on current global population growth, that humans in the past 50 years have consumed more resources than in all previous history.

The USEPA suggests that Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, and that approximately 80% of what they throw away is recyclable, however US recycling rate is only 28 per cent of what it could be.

US Commerce and Environmental agencies have concluded that more than an estimated 80 billion Hershey’s (Chocolate) Kisses are wrapped each day for sale, using enough aluminum foil to cover over 50 acres of space, the equivalent of almost 40 American football fields. Using 133 square miles of aluminum foil, a material which is not biodegradable, the material will remain in the environment for decades, and due to their small sizes eventually end up in the food chain of land and marine life. Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1 million sea creatures a year.

On an average, regardless of the infrastructural development of the country, five out of any 10 families do not separate their household waste before putting out it for collection. Three of every 10 families practice comprehensive separation of household waste, which is the total separation of all waste (glass, plastic and paper containers, cleaners, gardening chemicals, electronics, medicines, and clothing) before disposal.

Only two in every 10 families practice any form of recycling or separation household waste. While these averages may become the subject of intense debate on domestic waste management, the fact remains that the concept of household waste management is still in its embryonic stage of acceptance by the average family.

A number of different systems exist to collect recyclable material from household waste. These systems have been developed into a trade-off between public convenience and government ease and expense. There are three main categories of house hold waste collection: “drop-off centres” available at most supermarkets, “buy-back centres” and “curbside collection” which, while available, may carry a cost to the resident. Drop off centres require the consumer to carry the item to a central location, either an established collection station or the reprocessing plant itself. These are the easiest type of collections to establish, but suffer from low and unpredictable usage. Buy-back centres differ in that the cleaned items are purchased, thereby adding a financial incentive for use and creating a stable supply. The post- processed items can then be resold on the open market, creating a profit for the operator. Unfortunately, government subsidies may become necessary to make buy-back centres a viable enterprise. Research suggests that it costs on average US$50 to process a ton of material. Curbside collection encompasses different systems to allow for the collection of metals, wood, and glass.

The UN has estimated global population at over six billion, all producing and consuming recyclable products that are ending up in landfills. The UN suggests that this population growth will ultimately affect world food production and consumption based on how waste is managed, as the majority of the planet does not practice comprehensive waste management. Consider the following: Rainforests are being cut down at the rate of 100 acres per minute. A single quart of motor oil, improperly disposed, can contaminate up to two million gallons of fresh water. Motor oil never wears out, it just gets dirty.

Oil can be recycled and used again. On average, each one of us produces 4.4 pounds of solid waste each day. This approximates to almost a ton of trash per person, per year; and Barbados, like many other Caribbean countries does not have the available land space to create multiple landfills for the next 100 years. Where do we go from here? Will there be any environmentally safe areas for human populations to live? What will our marine life be like in 50 years? Will the entire earth look like a barren desert with the next millennium? It is time to change our behaviour if we want the earth to survive.

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