Declining the use of plastic drinking straws and making reusable shopping bags out of old clothes were just a few of the ideas proposed at a sustainability “think tank” hosted by the Island Green Living Association on Tuesday evening.
Potential government initiatives to further green living in the territory, including mandated eco-curriculum and container deposit laws, were also discussed at the gathering, which took place at the Westin Resort on St. John.
The IGLA is an organization dedicated to preservation, conservation and environmental responsibility on St. John and throughout the Virgin Islands.
The organization’s president, Harith Wickrema, who is also the board chairman of the V.I. Waste Management Authority, said he wants to introduce a fourth “R” to the old sustainability mantra “recycle, reduce and reuse.” His addition is ”rethink.”
“Think, do I need this or do I want it?” Wickrema said Tuesday. “Then you might not need to reduce, reuse or recycle if you thought ahead of time that you don’t need it. Less consumption is one way we can get to zero waste.”
Wickrema urged residents to “make some noise” to their senators to encourage recycling bills that have been introduced by Gov. Kenneth Mapp to be passed into law. Wickrema and IGLA assisted in drafting the bills.
In September the Legislature passed one bill banning plastic grocery bags in the territory but other bills on recycling separation and container deposits remain stalled in committee, according to Wickrema.
“The other two bills are sitting in the rules committee. There is a single senator not moving it and we have not gotten an official statement why he is not,” he said.
Two sustainability experts on the mainland travelled to St. John at their own expense to speak at the IGLA think tank: Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, and Mark Lichtenstein, chief of staff and executive director of sustainability at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
“I truly believe the Virgin Islands can be an example formula for the world,” said Lichtenstein. “If you can be sustainable in island communities with the challenges of transportation when we talk about recycling, with the challenges of your topography, different types of educational challenges, I frankly believe we can develop best management practices that can be deployed all over the world.”
Lichtenstein went on to say that sustainability “isn’t just about the environment.” He said he doesn’t think the economic benefits to recycling are mentioned frequently enough in the USVI.
“We talk about the environmental benefits all the time, which is great. But if we start leading with the economic arguments, particularly with job creation from recycling, we may win the day a little more effectively,” said Lichtenstein.
Collins advocated strongly for the sort of container deposit laws now being considered in the territory. Under such laws, refunds of 5 to 10 cents provide an incentive for the recycling of beverage containers.
Collins said the population of the United States alone consumes 56 billion bottles of water per year. That does not include juices or sodas. Pace of consumption of bottled water, she said, has increased so much over the last two decades that, even though recycling is also increasing, it is not keeping up enough to decrease related waste.
“A solution that has proven itself over and over and over again around the world is beverage container deposit laws. In all the years that I’ve been working in recycling, which is more than 25 now, I chose to focus on this issue because this type of program is what I call ‘the rock star’ of recycling.”
Collins said there is no other program that two years after being implemented in a state or territory produces a 70 to 80 percent recycling rate of a particular item.
The IGLA think tank also introduced St. John residents to the VIWMA’s new executive director, Roger Merritt, who has been in his position for two weeks.
Merritt said his goal is to pursue regional solutions in collaboration with other Caribbean nations and territories that are facing similar waste management issues to those faced by the USVI.
Sen. Marvin Blyden also attended the think tank. Blyden did not make remarks but Wickrema praised him for sponsoring recent recycling legislation and for being an advocate for sustainability.