During a town hall meeting on Thursday evening, members of the community expressed concern over the territory’s mounting trash issues and optimism for new recycling legislation that, if approved, could significantly improve the situation.
With the territory’s plastic bag ban set to go into effect on April 1, officials from the V.I. Waste Management Authority, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and Island Green Living Association shared more details on pending recycling initiatives and fielded questions from community members.
Sen. Marvin Blyden, chairman of the Housing, Public Works, Waste Management and Planning Committee, organized the public meeting that drew about 30 people to the Charles W. Turnbull Library on St. Thomas.
The meeting discussed the plastic bag ban and two pending pieces of recycling legislation. When the bag ban goes into effect, businesses will no longer be able to give customers plastic bags in checkout lines.
The Virgin Islands Source Separation Act will, if passed, manage how trash is collected and separated in an effort to reduce the amount of waste that is put into the territory’s two landfills. The other piece of legislation would establish a comprehensive recycling and composting program to support waste reduction.
Harith Wickrema, president of IGLA and chairman of Waste Management’s board, told attendees that some supermarket owners in the territory are resisting the plastic bag ban and are advocating for use of so-called biodegradable plastic bags.
According to Wickrema and other environmentally-minded attendees, biodegradable plastic bags still break down into microbeads that harm wildlife. For that reason, Wickrema urged the public to not be fooled by false claims and to boycott businesses that are resisting the ban.
An attendee asked which businesses are putting up a fight, but Blyden said it wouldn’t be fair to name them. He explained that they would likely be picketing soon, so the public can learn which ones aren’t getting on board that way.
Education is a key component to getting the public to recycle and reduce littering, Wickrema said. That’s why IGLA is working to make sustainability education mandatory in every grade at local schools. Parents listen to their children he said, explaining that the youth makes good salespeople.
Both Wickrema and Dawn Henry, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said Gov. Kenneth Mapp and members of the Legislature have been very supportive of the pending bills.
Henry, who has been highly involved in drafting the new legislation, said that senate members have listened to the community and business owners to revise the original bills. She said the legislation would make the island cleaner and greener.
Roger Merritt, executive director of Waste Management, said there’s a lot of work to be done but that the territory has an opportunity to really improve its trash issues. Recycling and compositing will also extend the lives of the quickly-filling landfills, he said.
Going forward the Department of Tourism will use compostable cups for rum samples it serves to tourists arriving at the airport.
Wickrema said Waste Management plans to do wide-scale commercial composting on all three islands in the future. Green waste is currently composted on St. Croix by the Sanitas Partners, the contractor that runs St. Croix’s waste transfer station.
Blyden says he is pushing for cameras to be installed at all of the territory’s bin sites to deter illegal dumping of big appliances and other nuisance items. He said there’s a significant need for more enforcement.
“St Thomas is one of the dirtiest islands I’ve ever seen,” said Blyden. He added that he pays attention to trash issues when visiting other Caribbean islands.
An attendee said that many of the beaches that locals frequent in the territory don’t have adequate garbage cans, which leads to more littering. Another said that trash and recycling centers should be sited in accessible places for people who don’t have cars.
One of the next convenience centers will be built in Smith Bay on land donated from Margaritaville Vacation Club on St. Thomas.