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New waste plan must not become an uncomfortable mess

The pictures painted a tellingly foul and messy story, as every form of household waste imaginable littered our streets and sidewalks, and overflowing receptacles contributed to growing mountains of garbage that plastered our communities.

An already irregular and unreliable garbage collection schedule had long betrayed the fact that our waste collection agency, the Sanitation Service Authority (SSA), reeling from a lack of adequate resources, had lost the ability to cope.

Therefore, it seemed a good idea to Barbadians who had been clamouring for relief, when it was announced that the SSA had agreed a deal with private haulers to help clear the awful mess that had been building up.

The Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) was among the first to throw its support behind the deal, saying it was for anything that would clean up Barbados. The private haulers loved it, and yesterday the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB) gave it two thumbs up.

Clearly, this was a deal made in garbage heaven. Refuse collection would be more effective and efficient, our streets and sidewalks would be cleared, the accompanying health threats would be dumped at the Sustainable Barbados Recycling Centre, and private haulers would be employed for the next six months, giving the SSA some breathing room to secure the resources that it needs to maintain the level of cleanliness.

However, when one reflects on all that is involved, including the near $3.5 million it is expected to cost Government during the life of the arrangement, the old phrase about the mortar and the pestle comes to mind.

Social activist David Comissiong pointed to the cost in his objection to the arrangement. Mr Comissiong accused the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) of abandoning its 2013 general election pledge to the people of Barbados by embarking on a process of privatization at the SSA; the BLP, in a second comment, said it was privatization via the back door, while the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) smelled something sinister.

There are some relevant questions that must be asked of the administration. At last week’s Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry luncheon, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler hinted that the arrangement could continue beyond the stated six months.

In revealing that Cabinet was set to approve funding for the plan, he said it would allow for garbage collection to continue “for the next six months or however long it takes them [SSA] to get the [financial] resources . . . so that we are able to purchase the trucks to replenish the fleet of the SSA”.

Therefore, we ask: How long is the administration prepared to allow the current arrangement to continue if the resources are not found to replenish the SSA fleet? Why did the more than $3 million not go towards the fleet?

Back in June, the BLP contended that 15 new garbage trucks had landed on the island as part of planned outsourcing of the SSA services. In responding to the charge, Minister of the Environment and Drainage Dr Denis Lowe made it clear to the Barbados Government Information Service that the SSA had not imported any trucks, but he never issued an outright denial of the claim.

And in the process, he made what in retrospect was a very interesting comment.

“We know what we need. We have identified sources that could help us supply those needs, and once the appropriate protocol has been observed, we shall endeavour to have these new vehicles as quickly as possible,” he said at the time.

Was that a hint of things to come? Has the administration been plotting, as the BLP alleged, to privatize the SSA through the back door? Could this have been the plan all along, as the NUPW said this week?

It would be a cruel irony of political fate if this were the case because this is a Government that was adamant during the campaign for the 2013 general election that privatization of state entities was the filthy route the BLP would take, but the DLP would do no such thing.

Mr Sinckler remains adamant that should Government privatize the SSA he was not certain who would foot the $50 million to $60 million bill to treat, sort and send waste to the landfill, since it would appear Barbadians did not want to shoulder some of the cost.

He has also stated that even if the operation were placed in the hands of the private sector, “eventually somebody is going to come back to Government and ask Government to subsidize that amount because the culture is not there yet in this society for persons to take full responsibility of their waste”.

However, businessman Ralph Bizzy Williams has openly said he wants the SSA. If he persists, will he get it?

The extended credit crunch which the country faces has exposed how the best-intentioned promises can be hijacked. Therefore, it is not beyond reason to suggest that one more promise could easily be broken, one more vow could be forgotten, one more pledge abandoned.

Up to this point we have been given far too little information to shape an informed decision. However, we recognize that the cost of garbage collection is high, the demands are great and the resources are few.

It is only right that the administration attempts to find workable answers to the problem. Nevertheless, Government must ensure that what started as a means to a better way to dispose of our garbage does not end up being a smelly mess.

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