Monday 24 February, 2020

Study shows T&T discards 26,000 tonnes of PET plastic per year

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay.

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay.

Trinidad and Tobago discards up to 26,000 tonnes of PET plastic containers per year - enough to start a local plastic recycling facility, according to researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

Sherwin Millette, a sustainability consultant at the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago (COSTATT) and Ph.D. graduate from the Rochester Institute of Technology, was a coauthor of the study referred to in the article.

According to an article shared to The Conversation by professors Clyde Eiríkur Hull, and Eric Williams from RIT, the study applied economic principles to the country's plastics management challenge.

"Although Trinidad and Tobago is a tiny country whose economy is based on beach tourism and the petroleum industry, and we had relatively little data on plastic production, use and disposal available, we see this as a useful case study. Trinidad and Tobago is not the only place where data is limited or expensive."

"Because Trinidad and Tobago's population is just 1.2 million, we were able to look at its complete economy. It belongs to Caricom, the Caribbean Community, a regional organization that includes 16 million people, giving it access to larger markets. And it struggles with the same problems many large countries face: lack of landfill space. The disposal problem is urgent," said Hull and Williams. 

(Photo: Plastic recycling being carried out at SWMCOL)

The study found that a whopping 26,000 tonnes of PET plastic containers are disposed of every year in Trinidad and Tobago.

"One promising finding from our study is that people in Trinidad and Tobago throw away 26,000 tonnes of PET plastic bottles every year – enough to make building a domestic recycling facility economically efficient."

"There is also enough domestic demand for PET bottles to use the plastic that would come from a recycling facility to make more bottles," the article said. 

The article also mentioned the option of burning plastic for energy, as is done in Sweden, and banning plastic items. 

"Some companies elsewhere, such as Lehigh Northeast Cement Co. in Glens Falls, New York, are starting to burn plastic as a fuel in cement plants. Cement production is energy intensive, and plastic can substitute for a large portion of the fossil fuels used. Trinidad and Tobago has a cement plant of sufficient size to burn around 29,000 tons of plastic waste," the article said. 

According to the study, the use of plastic waste can increase profits while reducing the waste which goes into landfills. 

"Whether this option would work depends on whether there are other uses for the plastic and how much plastic the cement plant there would take. There are economic motivations to find out: Using waste plastic can increase profits at cement plants while reducing the amount of plastic going into landfills by roughly 30%."

The study proposed that a ban on plastic bags could also reduce waste in Trinidad and Tobago by as much as 2,000 tonnes per year. 

(In this photo dated November 26, 2019, Minister of Rural Development and local Government, Kazim Hosein, surveys garbage piled high in Diego Martin prior to it being cleared.)

Plastic packaging, a major contributor of waste

The study found that plastic packaging accounted for much of the 49,000 tonnes of plastic which enters the country's landfills every year. 

"The most surprising finding from our study was that most of the plastic entering the country's landfills – a total of 49,000 tonnes per year – was not produced or imported.

"Rather, it entered the country as packaging around imported products. In other words, the largest amount of landfilled plastic "came along for the ride" with other things," the article said. 

Millette told Loop News that the move toward a plastic-free society must be economically sustainable, and said he supports legislation which would help reduce the volume of plastic waste.

“In order to really move toward environmental sustainability and a circular economy, first we have to have a legislative framework that allows for us to find business possibilities….we need to find something to replace plastics, not just in terms of the environmental component but also in terms of practical applications.

“I welcome the Beverage Container Bill, I think it’s a step in the right direction. The whole point is developing an environment that promotes innovation, to find solutions that can work in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) such as ours" he said. 

Measuring the flow of plastic: A universal solution

The researchers said the application of material flow analysis can be applied to other countries in order to measure the outcome of efforts to manage plastic. 

"While these results are specific to Trinidad and Tobago, material flow analysis can be used in any country. This approach clarifies the real outcome of efforts to manage plastic."

"For example, it showed us that banning single-use plastic bags and plastic straws could be worthwhile, but should be part of a larger strategy that identifies and manages larger sources of waste plastic.

"This kind of analysis does not have to be be expensive. Our study was based on publicly available data on imports and exports, manufacturing, and waste flows into landfills. Our results, although incomplete, were sufficient to spotlight workable solutions."

"The main barriers to using material flow analysis are awareness and expertise. The method is not yet widely known, and relatively few people have been trained to do it. But in a globalized world, where huge quantities of goods and materials are constantly moving across borders, it is a valuable tool for tackling urgent waste management challenges," said Hull and Williams. 

For the full study shared via The Conversation, see here: 

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