Waste and what to do with it (Haiti)

A very common and everyday situation: The trash can is full. Usually not a big deal, when there’s always a container somewhere to dump your waste. But what if there isn’t?

Coming to Haiti, I accustomed myself rather fast with the daily life and the new surroundings. But even though I already lived here now for two months, I still can’t get used to the fact that there’s no municipal waste management whatsoever. Due to this lack of organization, people are throwing their trash anywhere on public ground. I find that sad to watch, but generally understandable – clearly nobody wants to keep it at home.

A rough look at the source of the problem: Officially, waste management in Haiti is being organized through two bodies. The townships are in charge of taking the waste and pile it somewhere along the roadside, while the central government is responsible for its further collection and disposal. The latter is being managed exclusively through an organization called SMCRS (Service métropolitain de collecte de résidus solides), which is placed under the Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Communications. However, due to its capacities, SMCRS only manages to pick up a fraction of the garbage. There have also been several attempts by NGOs to assist in the efforts, but to my knowledge most of them have usually been ineffectual, short-dated or just a well-meant drop in the ocean. Hence, the challenge to get the waste under control is getting harder every day.

The endless piles of rubbish are representing a serious hazard to nature and human health, causing for instance the contamination of ground water and soil as well as sanitary problems and risks of infections within settlements. Also the sea is suffering as beaches and ports are littered with garbage, threatening the lives of birds and marine animals, posing a serious danger to the ecosystem of the entire region. Since nobody is picking up the littered trash, people are burning it, releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Due to the high amount of plastic, the smoke is very toxic – a slow poison for lungs and respiratory tracts. But there seems to be no alternative in sight, considering that plastic waste is hardly degrading by itself, resisting approximately up to 400 years in the wild before disappearing.

One might think that a technically mature waste incineration plant should solve the problem, but unfortunately it’s not that easy. For some years now an US‑American company is planning to build a factory that would transform garbage into electricity – a rare resource in Haiti, to which only 30% of the population has access to. But the future of this so-called “Phoenix Project” is very uncertain, since it’s being viewed quite critically: First of all, the involved technology is potentially dangerous and, moreover, the project would commit the country to a 30-years contract. This has to do with the fact that elaborated systems of garbage incineration are technically challenging and particularly expensive. Especially in a country like Haiti, turning waste into energy is hardly profitable because the percentage of moist organic compounds is so high, that an additional auxiliary firing is necessary.

Evidently the whole problem is far from being solved. But even though it’s much more visible here, it could also be pointed out that this challenge is still a global one. Although many countries collect their garbage reliably, this might still be just a solution according to the motto “out of sight, out of mind”. And even though some are already using elaborated systems of recycling, their overall pile of rubbish is still on the rise. The worldwide waste production is growing rapidly: On a global scale, 1.3 billion tons of municipal solid waste is produced every year. And it is estimated that this sum will already be doubled until the year 2025, reaching 2.6 billion tons per year. In the long run, the only solution to master this challenge will be a worldwide practiced cycle of sustainable reusability, combined with a consistent waste prevention.

According to official numbers, there are no existent recycling systems in Haiti. However, there are several initiatives throughout the country: So-called “debris management projects” use the demolition rubble from the earthquake to build new houses and sidewalks instead of dumping it. Furthermore, collection centers are spreading, where recyclable plastic bottles are exchanged for cash per pound. Turning waste into housings and money are certainly great ideas. It just needs many more of these.

written by Simon Bettighofer
CIDA (2012): CIDA and UNDP: Making the most of the debris in Haiti.
Haiti Liberte (2013): Phoenix Project. Controversial Garbage-Powered Plant Faces Uncertain Future.
World Bank (2012): What a waste. A Global Review of Solid Waste Management.