How to handle the waste problem on small islands

White and brown plastic waste on beach facing the sea

Desolate planet. Piles of rubbish. This is how pictures of the end of our beautiful planet have been painted. As we produce more waste, we have to handle their disposal as well. Worldwide, waste management is an issue that gives stakeholders migraines, but the problem is even more severe for the small isolated islands. Sri Lanka, for instance, is one of the world’s most waste generating islands, amounting to 7000 MT of waste per day.

What’s the problem on small islands?

In trying to keep pace with development and consumption, remote islands face the major problem of waste accumulation. It would be hard to say that progress and solution is not on the minds of environmental experts, but the problem is much more complicated than that.

1.      Urbanization

For how long will islands use wooden boats and paddles? As they invest more in modern equipment and paraphernalia, more waste, in different forms also, is produced and, so, have to be handled.

2.      Space

The space available on land becomes more and more limited with population growth, and worse when there is actually no place to do what has to be done with the garbage.

3.      Regulatory laws

More often than not, laws exist on paper but are not applicable. On many islands where tourism is a major source of income, environmental laws are bypassed for the sake of development. On the other hand, laws may be applicable but governing bodies lack knowledge and power to actually enforce them.

4.      Treatment facilities

Some islands may lack treatment facilities, like sewage treatment plants, to properly dispose of their waste because of the costs that these imply. Inevitably, pollution thus gets on the rise.

5.      Staff training

Any new approach or development requires training first to be implemented. Lack of training, as well as, inappropriate training makes handling any issue even harder.

6.      Capital

National projects require investment to move forward. In many cases, governments do not have the capital to embark on them. While many islands require external funding for these projects, finding donors or sponsors willing to invest in them can be problematic.

7.      Topography

There is no going around this one: the topography of small islands plays an important role in their waste management scheme. How to dig a landfill on a thin, flat island? Alternatives have to be considered.

8.      Tourism

Remote islands are touristic havens: people from busy cities fly to islands to relax. Unfortunately, touristic activities threaten islands’ ecosystems a lot. Maldives, for example, one of the most beautiful holiday destinations, has now literally become an oceanic bin. The amount of rubbish produced goes way beyond what the island can manage.

9.      Education

Even though waste management is a serious issue, islanders do not actually know just how fragile the environment is. Open burning is seen as harmless since there is a lack of knowledge on their health issues like it has been reported on the Virgin Islands.

Two empty plastic bottles and one can stacked onto the branches of a tree showing how islanders handle waste.
The easy way to dispose of trash – stack onto branches of a nearby tree

10. Mindset

At the end of the day, it all comes down to this: the mindset. Many people do not want to change because of the comfort of doing things in the usual manner. If throwing down gullies is the norm, they will follow it.

Bottles, umbrella,cans, wood, branches and trash thrown into canals showing how people handle waste on small islands
Trash thrown into canals

How to handle the situation then?

There is no general rule to follow here. Each island, based on its different capacities and what nature has given it, must come up with the appropriate solution to handle its waste. Some solutions that may help include:

1.      Composting

Roughly 50% of the total waste stream is organic matter like leftover food and peels. Composting these materials is a natural way to lower the bin levels and the compost obtained can be used to grow crops.

2.      Bokashi compost

Science students from the University of Mauritius suggested the use of Bokashi compost to alleviate the waste management issue in Mauritius. Bokashi is a mix of Effective Microbes that help to digest meat and dairy products in addition to greens. It is, thus, a better alternative to normal composting and it also yields results within a shorter period of time.

3.      Waste to energy plants

Governments can ask for regional or international help to set up waste to energy plants that transform garbage into energy just like the UK has done for the Isles of Scilly in Europe.

4.      Support from close countries

When islands have no proper means to dispose of their waste, help from neighboring countries is welcome. Residents on Matinicus island in the US, get help from neighbor Rockland to dispose of old metals; ferries carry the old junk from the island to the mainland for recycling.

5.      Landfills

Ultimately landfills are the most secure way to get rid of non-organic waste. Where the land permits it, like on rocky volcanic islands, secured and monitored landfills can be set up.

6.      Reuse, reduce, recycle

The 3Rs. Whatever can be reused, reduced or recycled must be done. Islanders must learn the importance of this approach to reduce the amount of waste.

7.      Education and training

Knowledge is the weapon that can prevent many disasters. Once people get the right information, they can make the right choices.

On a final note, it is, by no means, an easy task for an island to manage its trash in the ages that we are now living. You try to cut down on paper by not printing emails, you end up buying more stuff online, wrapped in more plastic. The only way to handle the waste issue on islands is to concentrate on sustainability and a No-Plan-B planet to go to.

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