To tell you the truth when our Guardian Multimedia crew went
to the Beetham ‘La Basse’ and the morning sunshine abruptly switched to
black clouds, followed by heavy rainfall, it looked like a dump. We drove
past a rough, tree-lined path and stopped at the gate. I was asked to go
“upstairs” to meet the manager. Our purpose was verified and we were
followed (until the rain shook them off) by Solid Waste personnel. I was
impressed with their efficiency until we drove deeper in. It felt surreal:
Sitting in an air-conditioned van in the middle of a sea of garbage, our
view blurred by thick raindrops on glass. A seamless darkness spread from
sky to earth. I felt the exposed skin on my arm redden. There was an itch on
my neck. One of us coughed. It must have been psychosomatic. It was the
stuff of nightmares. Rain pelting down on a field of garbage as far as the
eye could see: paper, plastic bottles, food cartons, cardboard boxes, broken
plastic chairs, rusting electronics, steel drums, ripped books, paper,
bottles, plastic bottles, cans, bleach bottles.
Dave Gajadhar, the logistics manager for Carib Glass who
brought us here tells us of what happens when the residue of soft drink
bottles, rotting food mingles. Rats. Cockroaches. That explained the sudden
scurrying. My skin crawled. The CNC3 Cameraman Joel Allick tried to get some
shots, by turning down the glass but the camera would have got damaged in
the rain. A SWMCOL truck noisily rumbled past, narrowly missing a skinny
mongrel, forcing Dave to reverse his lightweight van in a hurry. I could
hear the clicking from Keith Matthews, the Guardian Photographer’s camera. I
looked at the spot where he had trained his camera: A line of black turkey
vultures, corbeaux on a stretch of stone. And then the moving figures,
hunched, shapeless, Dickensian.
It was difficult to tell the men from the women, scavengers
dressed in layers of rags, seemingly sleepwalking, unaware of the trucks
off-loading garbage, untouched by the pelting rain, filling up bags, merged
into the grim landscape. The crew did the shoot in the rain, using
umbrellas, on the back of the truck. In the past 13 weeks since we began the
multimedia series I had gathered the following from interviews and guest
columnists. We dump over 50 million plastic bottles, and a million glass
bottles every month. A draft beverage bill which would have taxed
manufacturers on plastics to encourage recycling has been squashed and
gathering dust for a decade. There is no Waste Management, or recycling
The Guanapo and Beetham dumps have reached their capacity.
The proximity of the Beetham dump to the Caroni swamp means that toxins
could be entering our water table, polluting the swamp’s ecosystem and
poisoning our water and produce, and contributing to cancer and other
lifestyle diseases. The Solid Waste Management Company, a government agency
has this on its website: “The Beetham and Guanapo sites are major concerns.
They are located in areas that are not suitable for landfill operations.
These two sites could have negative impacts on the surface and groundwater
resources of the surrounding communities. The Beetham landfill is too close
to the capital city of Port-of-Spain and the highly urbanised east-west
The Beetham landfill presents a unique environmental problem
as the waste deposited in this environment continually subsides into the
The government agency is essentially admitting defeat. So
who do we turn to? I interviewed the executive manager of SWMCOL, Alban
Scott a knowledgeable officer who gently derided me during the television
interview for using the word “dump” on our environmental series. “Please” he
said, “It’s a landfill.” Then came Gideon’s reprimand. I checked.
Hanoomansingh was right. We don’t have landfills here. According to an
environmental scientist, this is the difference between a landfill and a
dump: “A modern landfill is lined with waterproof materials, such as clay
and plastic, that prevent rainwater and other liquids that ooze out of waste
from getting into the environment and contaminating the ground. They have
drains that capture liquids which are treated and water wells that are
monitored for leaks.
“Landfills are covered each day with soil to keep birds,
insects, rats, and other animals from moving in. The daily covering also
keeps water and air out of the trash, which keeps the material from rotting
too fast and creating bad smells. “Dumps, on the other hand, are just that—a
big hole or a big pile of garbage. They do not prevent the waste
from garbage and possibly other dangerous things coming into contact with
the ground, they are full of rats, roaches, and other vermin, and they
stink. “Hazardous waste may not be dumped in the Beetham, but a dump is a
dump. It is unlined, unfenced, without proper drainage and yes it stinks.
This is the dream, as articulated by Allan De Boehmler from Waste Disposals
Limited who believes T&T should aim to reduce at least 50 per cent of our
waste by recycling.
He wrote this in
last Thursday’s Guardian guest column. “All residents have to learn to
separate their paper, plastic; aluminium and glass waste and place it in a
separate transparent recycling bag. On recycling...collection day, workers
will easily identify which are the bags to collect. The truck loaded with
bagged recyclables goes to a processing centre and dumps its load onto a
conveyor. The waste is sorted and shipped for recycling.” The new government
brought a lot of hope for change. We hope it is not dashed, that the
“feasibility” study on recycling mentioned in the budget is expedited and
the increased litter fines enforced. In the meantime, the dump remains the
dump, and a growing health hazard that may soon become a man-made disaster.