According to an audit conducted by Asia Pacific Waste Consultants (APWC) in 2020, 3,800 tons of plastic is imported into Antigua annually of which 3,250 tons actually reach the landfill. This means 550 tons of plastic are unaccounted for and likely end up in the environment.
Compared to similar countries in the Eastern Caribbean, Antigua’s waste per person is nearly double. Daryl Spencer, General Manager at the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) said each person produces almost 4 kg of waste per day.
In that waste are tons of plastics in the form of detergent bottles, cooking containers, plastic packaging from supermarkets, shops and much more. With the import of goods overseas unlikely to slow down anytime soon, plastics in its various forms will continue to flood the island.
West Indies Sail Heritage Foundation
Fortunately, there is a small group of people who have inadvertently created a circular industry around recycling plastic waste in Antigua and Barbuda. Their effort, however small, is providing solutions to this mammoth problem we face. For example, Billy Gernertt and his wife, Charlotte Hooijdonk are upcycling plastic waste made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET, sometimes PETE). They use mostly bottle caps from water bottles on the island or those that wash ashore onto beaches.
The couple founded the West Indies Sail Heritage (WISH) Foundation, a non-governmental organization that aims to advance the careers of young sailors while teaching them how protecting the ocean can benefit their families. In 2020, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, they could no longer teach sailing but needed a way to sustain their livelihoods until they could. That is when they decided to apply for an environmental grant that ties in with the work they were already doing. They wanted to help rid the ocean of plastics by upcycling plastic waste material.
“The ocean is what we love and it’s in danger because of all the plastic. The link between sailing the ocean and plastic is a very, very strong link and then we figured out that there is a grant programme,” said Charlotte.
Not knowing how to write a grant, she took inspiration from a former employer Adopt-An-Ocean. They clean beaches with community youth groups. Her husband Billy’s idea was to use plastic bottle caps to make vases, trinkets and now furniture. He became inspired by a video he watched seven years ago that was sent to him by an environmentalist friend from a Netherlands company called “Precious Plastic”. “They have open-source machines where you upcycle your own plastics. So, that idea was kind of percolating in my head and I thought that would be kind of cool,” he recalled.
Today, they are expanding their business to include making terracotta vases and small furniture entirely from plastic waste made of PET. They are also conducting school outreach programmes, raising awareness among the youth and showing them first-hand how they create reusable items from plastic.
Antigua and Barbuda Waste Recycling Corporation (ABWREC)
They get most of their materials from the Antigua and Barbuda Waste Recycling Corporation (ABWREC) – a project of the Rotary Club of Antigua Sundown.
Chairman of the board, Mario Bento oversees a team that collects, crushes, and exports PET bottles to countries like Mexico and the Dominican Republic which then use PET bottles to manufacture new bottles and containers.
The plastic waste that they collect comes from bottle plants and residents who drop off their empty containers.
ABWREC is looking to upscale its operations. It’s building a bigger facility so that it can, among other projects, start making furniture and plastic boards out of waste.
But it has become increasingly difficult to source those export markets. In the past, China received plastics from Antigua & Barbuda but in 2017, the country banned the importation of most plastic garbage. The Dominican Republic is also no longer an option, Osbert Nanton, Supervisor at ABWREC shared.
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According to him, they have concerns about the quality of plastic waste. As early as last year, ABWREC was only collecting about three per cent of the waste that did not enter the landfill. Still, the company is determined to make a difference and increased their workers from eight to thirty workers which include personnel from the National Solid Waste Authority.
To make the work more effective, they sometimes partner with Hassani Williamson, owner and manager at Wills Recycling. Williamson, who is an accountant, owns a sorting and collection depot near the landfill where they collect metal waste, scraps, faucets and aluminum wire.
His company also uniquely recycles plastics by shredding the insulation covering from copper. Truckers bring these materials directly to the recycling plant in exchange for a small fee.
“Antigua and Barbuda is a market that consumes and what do we do with the waste, there’s nobody who’s handling the waste in an environmentally friendly way. It all goes to the landfill,” he said, telling the story of how he got started.
He has also employed a few people from marginalized communities to help with the sorting and administrative work and pays copper collectors more than they would get trying to sell them on their own. “We have an individual who has a hearing impairment. He has been with me since inception, he works very well and so, we seek to employ everyone within our surrounding community and empower them as much as we can,” he said.
The job of a copper collector
Williamson’s safe disposal method can help people like Leroy Emmanuel to find a less harmful
way to make a living.
Like Wills Recycling, Emmanuel strips copper for a living but his way is more harmful to himself and the environment. He lights a fire to burn the insulation covering the copper wire. He does this knowing that the gases released from burning are harmful to his health. “The smoke is very dangerous for you to inhale. It is contaminated and not good to inhale … maybe you can stifle,” he said acceptingly.
Emmanuel has been burning copper since 1997/1998, perhaps an indication of the life span of the plastic problem on the island. He claims that he has found a way to avoid the risks associated with burning – he stays on the opposite end of the fire. And while that strategy is not likely to reduce the risk to his health, he prefers it over having to beg for food. It takes him 30 minutes to burn six pounds of wire which gets him about $15 for that batch. But usually, he waits until he collects enough to sell locally. The wire is then exported out of the country.
“I burn and store up until when I have a good amount so I can make some reasonable money so I can buy some food,” he said.
The wire is sold at a market price of $2.50 per pound. For the brass, he said he can get $1.50 while the aluminum sells for $0.40 per pound. According to Emmanuel, many more people burn copper. Others clean and sell the aluminum but he says it doesn’t have as much value as the copper.
Manufacturers need to step up
The efforts of these residents are admirable but it is just a dent in solving the plastic problem. To make a greater impact, they need to upscale their businesses and manufacturers of plastics can help to provide those resources and ensure that plastic is being reused sustainably. Wealthy corporations that manufacture billions of plastics each year have a responsibility to help countries like Antigua & Barbuda. Many can agree that this magic material is useful, and many more will agree that if we don’t get the production and reuse of plastic materials under control, it will speed up the degradation of the Earth.
The fact that plastics take hundreds of years for plastic material to decompose, means more chances for them to clog waterways, harm wildlife, and damage ecosystems. But we simply cannot do away with all plastic. In 2017, Antigua & Barbuda banned the import, distribution, sale, and use of plastic bags but the law exempts a list of plastic bags including bread wrapping, wrap for fresh meat and fish, primary packaging, medicine, laundry dry cleaning, and waste disposal.
Plastic and climate change
Plastic production and disposal can release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These gases can contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere and increasing the Earth’s temperature. Plastic waste that ends up in landfills can emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as it decomposes. Landfills are also a source of air pollution and can contaminate soil and water. When plastic waste enters the oceans, it can break down into smaller pieces called microplastics. Microplastics can absorb carbon dioxide from the water, leading to ocean acidification.
This can harm marine life and disrupt the ocean ecosystem. Plastic pollution can harm the habitats and ecosystems of animals and plants. This can have ripple effects throughout the food chain, disrupting entire ecosystems. Reducing plastic waste and increasing recycling efforts can help mitigate these impacts and promote a more sustainable future. That is why manufacturers of plastics must fund innovations and invest in small island developing states.
This story was originally published on Island Press Box, with support from the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.