Every day, three landfills in Trinidad receive over 1,000 tonnes of garbage, with the one in Beetham, Port of Spain taking in the largest volume (500 tonnes), followed by those in Guanapo, Arima and Forres Park, Claxton Bay, which each receive approximately 300 tonnes of refuse.
While there have always been concerns about the safety and sustainability of these landfills, fresh concerns were raised when fires at the Beetham dump generated toxic smoke which blanketed Port of Spain and its environs for several days in early April.
Even as the Solid Waste Management Co Ltd (SWMCOL) plans to build a central, engineered landfill in Forres Park by 2026, and close the two others, experts warn the new site will only relocate the problems if people don't adopt better waste-management practices.
Business Day spoke with experts in waste management, biology, and health about the issues plaguing the existing landfills and why better waste management is the only feasible solution.
SWMCOL CEO Kevin Thompson said all three landfills have surpassed their capacities, given the volume of waste they collect daily.
The Beetham landfill is 229 acres; the the Forres Park landfill (55 acres) and Guanapo landfill (30 acres) are dwarves in comparison.
At a forum in March 2018, former minister of planning and development Camille Robinson-Regis announced the Government’s plans to close the landfills and replace them with a large, engineered landfill.
With lined bottoms, proper leachate collection/treatment systems, mechanisms to monitor groundwater and proper caps to cover contaminants, engineered landfills are considered more sustainable, given their reduced negative socio-environmental effects.
But waste specialist and UWI lecturer Dr Trina Halfhide doesn’t fully support closing the landfills, and considers their closure a Band-Aid which doesn’t solve the country’s overall waste-management problem.
“We can use our waste for other purposes. For example, we can use organic materials from food waste to produce biofuel.
“So there needs to be an all-inclusive plan about what to do with the landfill and recognise we can create value-added products from the landfill.”
All three landfills receive different types of solid waste from residential, commercial, institutional, construction, agriculture, manufacturing and municipal activities.
Both Thompson and Halfhide agree robust domestic and commercial waste-management plans will make the planned engineered landfill sustainable.
When a home or business creates a waste-management plan, it can then account for the amount and types of waste it generates, which can help determine how best the waste can be disposed of.
If an office has a waste-management plan, garbage thrown away by workers will be separated, depending on the type of waste. These different waste streams will then be collected separately and sent to different facilities to be recycled or disposed of.
If this is done, Thompson added, “Ideally, 70 per cent of the recyclable items that we now collect at the current landfill will not come to the new site.
“Instead, those items will be treated at a material-recovery facility and allocated to particular industries so they can be recycled.”
Thompson said SWMCOL currently has several projects to guide people to adopt better waste-management practices.
Oneis the company’s drive to encourage people to collect their plastic waste separately and send it to SWMCOL’s recycling warehouse in Sea Lots, Port of Spain, where it is recycled into chips for export. In 2020 alone, 335 tonnes of plastic were recycled at the warehouse.
If proper waste-management plans are implemented nationwide, and there is a collective effort to properly manage waste, Thompson said the amount of waste reaching landfills can be reduced.
He said, “We do need some more effort placed into recycling, because the challenge is, when (something) is not recycled, it ends up in the watercourse or the landfill.
“We really want to encourage the national community to do their part in terms of recycling. We need to get more into that circular economy kind of thinking.”
In sustainable development, a circular economy minimises waste by reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials to create new ones.
With several years before the new landfill is built, Halfhide suggests residents in the communities surrounding the current landfills should be incorporated into waste-management plans to help create job opportunities and reduce scavenging activities, which pose numerous risks.
Residents, he said, "could actually be part of the separation of the waste materials when they are brought to the dump and can get paid for their labour, because separation of waste tends to be very labour-intensive. At the moment, I don’t think they are properly engaged.”
It’s another reason why Halfhide said any decision about the future of the landfill must include all perspectives.
“I wouldn’t make a blanket statement that the landfill needs to close down today. If the Beetham landfill was to cease existing and you no longer have it there, the people who depend on it will be at a loss.
“So I think what we need to do is definitely develop a strategic management plan.”
Apart from the landfills’ environmental effects, pollution biology expert and part-time UWI lecturer Dr Hema Baboolal also warns there’s little time left on the health front.
During the fires at the Beetham landfill in early April, the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) recorded hazardous air-quality levels at its ambient air-quality monitoring station in Beetham. Given the hazardous air quality was primarily due to smoke and particulate matter, the EMA warned people near the fires to be extremely cautious.
Several doctors contacted at the time said long-term effects from prolonged exposure to such hazardous air quality included accelerated ageing of the lungs, loss of lung capacity and decreased lung function, and development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and possibly cancer.
Work at the National Petroleum (NP) LPG distribution centre in Sea Lots stopped for several days during the fires as staff were sent home because of the toxic fumes.
Baboolal has measured the air quality at all the existing landfills and found trace metals including cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, lithium, manganese, nickel, and vanadium. Even without landfill fires, the concentrations of these metals exceeded the acceptable limit under the internationally accepted Canadian ambient air-quality standard.
Some metals (cobalt, chromium, iron, lithium, nickel, and vanadium) also exceeded the standard for the finest particulate matter, which means constant inhalation into the lungs can be harmful. Research by the US Environmental Protection Agency shows prolonged exposure to chromium and nickel can cause cancers like lung cancer.
With fires often burning in these landfills, Baboolal warned, “As you would expect, in a fire, many more toxic gases and trace metals would be emitted as things burn.
“Many of the toxic gases fall into the group of volatile organic compounds which – like benzene and methane – readily burn and vaporise into the air.
“Other chemicals and trace metals too can become stuck onto particles that go up with the smoke and be distributed as far as the wind will blow it.”
But Baboolal said emissions blow over communities surrounding landfills during normal, non-fire conditions too, which can pose a health risk to people with respiratory conditions and even cause such conditions in other people.
Baboolal suggests, “A simple way to avoid exposure of vulnerable people to the emissions is to institute a standard safety protocol where the wind direction – via a windsock – in conjunction with/or not, a threshold emission level could trigger a warning and allow precautionary evacuation of vulnerable people who would be impacted by the landfill emissions.
“The gases and leachate from the landfill can be collected as toxic waste, scrubbed and the useful products such as the methane extracted for use.
“This could go a long way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and help the environment and people’s health.”
In 2019, SWMCOL started preliminary studies on the new engineered landfill. Studies on its geology and how to manage the movement of waste when it is redeveloped have been completed.
A contract was recently awarded for a waste characterisation study, which assesses the waste capacity limit of the redeveloped site.
Thompson said, “With the completion of the waste characterisation study next year, we would be completing phase one of that programme to build that engineered landfill."
In the meantime, "You will notice SWMCOL is taking a much more aggressive stance in the media, trying to encourage public participation in recycling.”
Even when the landfills are closed, Thompson said it will be a gradual process, not a sudden one.
“When you close a landfill, it’s not just like you close it, and you walk away…that’s not going to happen. There will continue to be activities on those landfills related to remediation. We have to treat the soil and we also need to filter the remaining leachate so it can go back into the natural watercourses.”
While the existing landfills remain in use, Thompson said SWMCOL has intensified efforts to make them more environmentally friendly.
For example, the company teamed up with the Basel Convention Regional Centre for Training and Technology Transfer for the Caribbean (BCRC-Caribbean) and the Technical Consultancy of the Union of Water Boards (TAUW) for a year-long project to investigate the Beetham landfill’s effect on the environment and how it can be reduced.
“For this project, we’ve gotten funding from the BCRC, the government of the Netherlands and the TAUW foundation. Together with us as a partner, these groups are investigating the possible impacts of the landfill on the Caroni Swamp.”
The company also recently handed over its faecal waste disposal services to the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA). Thompson explained the company has been developing the plan for over a year and is now transferring all its customers to WASA.
“We want to rehabilitate our wastewater ponds (at the landfill), so we’ve had conversations with WASA, and we are trying to move across the customers that we do have, so we can do some additional work in that area.”