Throughout the lockdown, government ministers repeatedly encouraged residents to rinse, separate and store their recyclable items so they could be collected and processed once the curfew was lifted. The curfew was partially lifted on Monday, and now all hands are on deck to process the materials.
“There’s at least one drop-off point in every village now,” said Sarah Penney, the deputy director of Green VI, a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainability education and projects in the Virgin Islands.
Ms. Penney and her team have been working in recent weeks to expand the territory’s recycling system.
Previously, there were seven public drop-off sites on Tortola for recyclable items, and 10 on Virgin Gorda.
Ms. Penney said her team upped that to 46 locations in recent weeks.
“It was quite an undertaking,” she said. “There’s a lot more to it than necessarily meets the eye.”
The bins themselves are made from reused materials: treated shipping pallets that would have otherwise been burned. She said it takes about 14 pallets to craft each bin.
“They’re a lot bigger [than previous bins], so they can accommodate what we hope is going to be a much higher volume of recyclables,” she added.
When it became clear that employees wouldn’t be able to collect recyclables door-to-door during the lockdown like was being done for garbage, Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone encouraged households to hold back their recyclables. Pressure was on to bolster the recycling system and make sure it could handle the influx of material once the curfew was lifted.
“It’s been an intense journey to figure out how we can make this all work,” Ms. Penney said.
Teams of Green VI staff and construction workers from Krezmor Construction worked hard to assemble and place the bins before last week’s anticipated lifting of the curfew. But closed shops meant workers had to use whatever materials were on hand, seeking paint and screws and pallets from whoever had some to spare.
Ms. Penney said morale remained high regardless.
“A lot of this comes down to community connecting,” she said.
The deputy director said it was essential not only to offer more bins, but also to be thoughtful about where to place them to best serve each community. Green VI sought locations that see a lot of traffic but also have safe places to pull over, and that ideally were close to Dumpsters to make it more convenient for people running errands during the open time window.
Typically, only one truck is needed to pick up recyclables each day. But with the amount of material coming in now, Ms. Penney said two are on duty and she is seeking a third to keep the bins from overflowing.
Educating people about recycling has been an important component to developing a better system. Most types of glass and plastic containers are recyclable in the VI, though paper is not.
Ms. Penney said one common misconception is that tin food cans are recyclable here. But at this time, facilities can only take aluminium items. One easy test for knowing if a beverage can is aluminium is if it is easy to crush by hand, according to information from the non-profit.
Many residents took a strong interest in making sure they were recycling correctly, seeking out answers to what specific types of plastics should be included.
Information about where to find the nearest recycling bin and what is recyclable can be found on the free Green VI Recycle app. Ms. Penney said the app officially launched last June.
“That also was really powerful, because we had that app and worked really hard last year to get it developed,” she said. “It all of a sudden proved how valuable the investment of time and resources was.”
Much of what the VI collects is processed within the territory. Glass can be ground and reused as construction material, reducing the need to import products like river sand, she said. The crushed glass can be utilised as building foundations, sidewalks, countertops and roadworks.
“It’s a fabulous resource to make use of,” she said.
Plastics other than drink bottles are recycled in the territory and repurposed as polywood, which private companies can use to make outdoor furniture. Given the recycling centres’ current limitations, all plastic water bottles have to be crushed and exported, currently through a contract with a family-run company based in Canada.
Test recycling centres at Paraquita Bay on Tortola and The Valley on Virgin Gorda have been operating for six months, the deputy director said. At the centres, plastics are sorted into seven types, and nonrecyclable materials are sifted out.
The centres, she hopes, will soon be able to process steel and tin within the territory.
“We’re just about to the point of being able to do cardboard, but that takes a whole level of dry space,” Ms. Penney said, adding that the effort depends on the government’s waste strategy plans.
Ministries are still working to estimate how many jobs have been lost because of hits to the tourism industry, and Ms. Penney said an investment in the recycling system could translate to job creation.
“We remain hopeful that this administration will find the funding to support this system on the back end,” she said. “It needs some extra human resources, … which seems to be a very reasonable thing to consider when looking at the economic fallout of the pandemic.”
The current economic instability, she added, means that the global market for recycled materials is suffering.
That market also took a foundational blow three years ago when China stopped buying recyclables, Ms. Penney said.
“The pandemic has taken it down even more, just because manufacturing isn’t happening, factories aren’t functioning at the same level,” she said. “It’s a weird time, but it’s a really interesting time for the work that the BVI system is doing.”
The partnership with the Canadian company allows the VI to sell plastic from water bottles for about as much as it costs to ship it, about 13 cents per pound. Ms. Penney said it’s difficult to say if the organisation will still be able to break even given the worsening market prospects.
“It’s not that you can’t, but there’s so much uncertainty as to whether that’s a price they’re going to actually be able to maintain offering for BVI plastics,” Ms. Penney said. “There’s just no way to know what’s going to happen with border controls right now.”
The territory ships 40-foot containers of plastics at a time, and it will be a waiting game to see what happens with the next shipment, Ms. Penney indicated.
The VI also sends shipments of aluminium to Puerto Rico, where a facility consolidates it. The metal can’t yet be processed in the territory’s recycling centres because of its toxicity.
“What’s really nice is the folks in Puerto Rico really care about the BVI, and so they’re trying to do everything they can to make it at least cover its costs to get exported,” Ms. Penney said.
The complications abroad provide a greater incentive to invest in the territory’s internal recycling capabilities, she added.
Ms. Penney said expanding green initiatives in the VI will require investments from non-profit organisations, government and private businesses.
Waste Not is a company based in the VI seeking leased crown lands for a composting facility that would use worms to break down organic material that would otherwise go to the landfill, according to Ms. Penney.
She said about half of the material sent to the incinerator is organic, including food scraps and paper. By turning this into compost, the territory would get the two-fold benefit of reducing waste and enriching soil for agriculture, she said.
“There’s still space in the BVI landscape for other businesses that use waste as a resource,” she said.
One of the biggest areas to tackle is the use of individual plastic water bottles as a main water source, according to Ms. Penney. Before the hurricanes of 2017 hit the territory, she said, water bottles weren’t as big of a factor as they are now.
“If you did a waste audit, plastic water bottles would be about 20 percent of the plastics that people were throwing away,” she said. “Post Irma, it’s 60 percent, if not higher.”
One silver lining to the challenge of waste management during the curfew is that households are more aware of how much they use, Ms. Penney said, and some residents are taking the time to learn more about recycling.
She said while scouting drop-off locations it was rewarding to hear how many people were grateful for the easier access to recycling. Actually seeing the bins show up in communities was validating for residents who had invested their time to sort their recyclables, she said.
“Everyone that we spoke with was feeling very inspired,” she said.