Eventually, the poor and dispossessed realised that one man’s waste is another man’s resource and scavengers descended (as they do to this day) on every cartload of garbage dumped in the Beetham — and erected their dwelling places as close to their workplace as possible. So much for the beginnings of the Beetham.
However, there came a time when even Government Ministers who know there’s very little political capital to be made from garbage, were forced to face the problem of garbage dumps springing up all over the country. In the years since the first load was dumped on the Beetham the world, and with it, garbage was changing. There were more and more cars on the road, generating more and more dangerous, hazardous waste.
There were more and more people using more and more goods — and putting out more and more garbage. Quite apart from the cars, the garbage itself was changing as new chemicals for industrial, commercial, agricultural, horticultural and domestic use came on the market.
Even before the era of electronic toys it was obvious something had to be done to bring some sort of order to the collection and disposal of waste, and so it was that in 1983 the Solid Waste Management Company was set up to be responsible for three major garbage dumps (called, in polite society, “waste disposal sites”) the Beetham, the Guanapo and Forres Park, leaving the misleadingly named Studley Park to the Tobago House of Assembly and Guapo Landfill serving San Fernando to Earth Limited — whose company’s website is a mine of information on the five “R’s” for conservation, i.e. how we —you and I —can Reduce, Reuse, Recover, Recycle and Remove our wastes to lighten the load on the landfills.
The Beetham Landfill passed its “use by” date in 2003 but the howls of protest from scavengers frightened the Government of the time into backtracking on that one, plus the NIMBY, “Not In My Backyard” cries of residents getting wind of plans to site a purpose-built engineered landfill in their neck of the woods.
However much SWMCOL tried to disguise the Beetham from visiting VIPs, tourists and commuters who must pass by it day after day, as Sunday Newsday’s editorial pointed out, it’s an eyesore. Toxic smoke from fires set by scavengers burning the plastic coating on cables to recover the copper threaten the health of office workers in Port-of-Spain. The Landfill can’t be secured, as it would be in the developed world. SWMCOL can only control what comes in by the truckload; it’s not possible to fence the landfill, let alone patrol the perimeter to prevent unauthorised persons to gain access to the “treasures” on the tip or dump whatever toxic waste they please.
There’s no doubt that Trinidad needs a new purpose-built, engineered, secure landfill complete with sorting centres for the five “R’s”. Nor is there any doubt that we’ve needed such a landfill for the past seven years but between the law’s delays (passing the necessary legislation in Parliament), the Environment Ministry being tossed about from one government ministry to the next (sometimes with Agriculture, sometimes with Planning and Development, sometimes with Housing) and changes in Environment Ministers themselves, what should be simple and straightforward becomes (as too often in TT) a legal and bureaucratic maze with SWMCOL spinning top in mud.
All is not gloom and doom, however. SWMCOL has had some successes. Since I last wrote about it in 1998, the illegal Morne Vanee dump in Blanchisseuse is no more; SWMCOL closed down the illegal dump on the Toco Road, remediating the site by covering it with soil and planting trees.
It’s going to take time to get local residents to accept a purpose-built engineered landfill in their backyard — wherever that may be — to get the necessary legislation through Parliament, to design and construct the landfill, to fence it and set up sorting centres on site and (last, but most likely, not least) find alternative employment for scavengers.
Yes, it’s going to take time that is not on our side, bearing in mind the Beetham ought to have been closed down in 2003. We have, perforce, to leave the decision to open a proper, purpose built landfill to politicians, the design to engineers, the construction to contractors —not forgetting the responsible dedicated public servants in Government Ministries keeping an eye on things for us, the taxpayers, and for Government.
Meanwhile, we, the public have a responsibility to lighten the load on our landfills. Watch this space for how you can practise at least two or three of the five “R’s” for conservation.