Recycling in the USVI: Part 1, Government Action and Inaction

Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas. (Source file photo)
Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas. Bovoni was ‘almost flat’ when Waheed “Willie” Hamed first came to St. Thomas in 1992. (Source file photo)

This is the first of four stories on the state of recycling in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the obstacles and opportunities for creating such a system.

When Virgin Islanders travel to the States, they’re often surprised by the recycling regimens they’re expected to follow. In some places, “tin” cans, aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastic containers must be washed and deposited into separate bins. Cardboard and paper go into one container, food waste into another, and garden clippings into yet another. Some households also separate out vegetable food waste suitable for composting.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the government asks for none of these distinctions. Household waste of every kind goes in one bag and ultimately winds up in the landfill in Anguilla on St. Croix or Bovoni on St. Thomas. Because of health and safety concerns, both of these sites are operating under consent decrees and have been slated for closing for years.

‘When I first came to St. Thomas from St. Croix in 1992, Bovoni [landfill] was almost flat – a little hill,” said Waheed “Willie” Hamed, vice president of Plaza Extra in Tutu on St. Thomas. “Now it’s a gigantic mountain. The government should make this a top priority.”

Anguilla Landfill on st. croix

As an executive of a major supermarket, Hamed is in a position to understand the quantities of food and household items imported into the territory that are then consumed or sent to the landfill to slowly decompose. Inspired by his brother, Mafi Hamed, who launched a recycling campaign for Plaza West on St. Croix last year, Willie started a similar program on St. Thomas.

They join the ranks of a growing number of individuals and community organizations that are no longer waiting for the government to take action and have moved forward with their own efforts to implement recycling throughout the territory.

Constructing new landfills is one aspect of dealing with the growing mountain of solid waste, but environmental activists say it is just as important to take action to cut down on the waste stream that ends up in landfills.

What follows is an overview of action taken by the territorial government, businesses, and community groups to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste throughout the territory. The final part of this series presents an outline of a model waste processing center that could work in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Government
In November 2017, shortly after hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through the territory, then-Gov. Kenneth Mapp sent the 32nd Legislature Bill No. 17-0845, which sought to make recycling mandatory.

The bill would have established “source separation and redemption centers” and require businesses, residents, and government to participate in the program.

“Source separation” is the term commonly used for segregating different types of waste at a home or business where they are generated. “Redemption centers” are collection sites where residents could bring their waste products and, in some cases, receive a refund. The idea is to sort and recycle waste products – glass, metal, paper, plastic – so they don’t have to wind up in the landfill.

The bill would have authorized the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority to create infrastructure for recycling and to educate the public.

“We need to go into this direction,” said Mapp, noting that the territory produces 300 tons of solid waste per day during non-disaster times.

Later that month, the Senate’s Committee of the Whole met to consider the source separation bill as well as another one to establish the “Virgin Islands Beverage Container Recycling Act.” Also on the agenda for that session was a bill that called for “banning the burning of all fallen trees and other wood debris generated as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.”

Irma storm debris was piled at the Coral Bay ball field after the hurricane. (Source photo by Amy Roberts)
Irma storm debris was piled at the Coral Bay ball field after the hurricane. (Source photo by Amy Roberts)

The proposed bills to establish source separation centers and to recycle beverage bottles were never enacted. Of the three, only the “ban the burn” bill became law. Although Mapp supported other environmentally-friendly legislation, he was adamant about authorizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to burn the vegetative storm debris. This led to a contentious battle with environmental activists who feared the smoke would endanger public health and destroy a valuable resource – the vegetative debris which could be used for composting. Mapp vetoed the “ban the burn” bill, but the Senate voted to overturn his veto in December 2017.

Ultimately, much of the vegetative debris was sent off island rather than burned, but Mapp’s opposition to “ban the burn” and ensuing conflicts led to the termination of the chairman of the board of the V.I. Waste Management Authority and the resignation of the authority’s recently-hired executive director Roger Merritt.

The Waste Management Authority is mandated to operate and maintain the wastewater and solid waste infrastructure throughout the territory, but since March 2018 it has been functioning without the appointment of a permanent executive director. Most recently, Adrian Wade Taylor has been interim director.

Adrian Taylor, interim executive director, discusses Waste Management Authority issues with the board. (Susan Ellis photo)
Adrian Taylor, interim executive director of the Waste Management Authority (Susan Ellis photo)

The lack of consistent leadership couldn’t have happened at a more critical time. In addition to processing the usual quantities of solid waste, the territory was overwhelmed with waste following the hurricanes of 2017. According to the “USVI First-Year Progress Report” prepared by disaster recovery consultants Witt O’Brien’s, almost one million cubic yards of debris were collected within six months of the storms.

This included 270 vessels salvaged and towed to a reduction site; more than 1,300 transformers, 2,800 damaged power poles, and almost two million feet of damaged conduction wire; 750,000 cubic yards of vegetative debris; and more than 121,000 cubic yards of construction and demolition debris from damaged and cleared structures with much more anticipated.

The Susannaberg Transfer Station one year after Hurricane Irma, September 2018. (Source photo by Amy Roberts)
The Susannaberg Transfer Station one year after Hurricane Irma, September 2018. (Source photo by Amy Roberts)

The territory’s landfills, already overburdened by daily household waste, were unable to process the extra debris, and much of it was shipped off island. It’s unclear how much of it was salvaged for recycling.

The Witt O’Brien’s report states the government’s intentions to construct new landfills, neighborhood collection centers, and transfer stations in the next two years.

However, no legislation to implement recycling and cut down on the stream of waste entering the landfills has been proposed in the current Senate session.

“We haven’t approached recycling yet,” said Sen. Janelle Sarauw in May.

The Waste Management Authority should be leading the call for recycling, Sarauw said.

“Waste Management has a board, and these decisions should be made by them. They need some nudging. There should be a five-to-ten-year plan. I think we need WMA to do a better job.”

The Waste Management Authority does recycle electronic waste and scrap metals brought to its landfills, and it “is poised to continue waste diversion initiatives, such as green waste and scrap metal recycling activities,” said Charmin Springer, a spokesperson for the Waste Management Authority. She said the authority “is in support of former Governor Mapp’s source separation bill.”

Although WMA “encourages the collection and recycling of recyclable materials via free enterprise and entrepreneurship” and partners with other agencies to sponsor workshops on related topics like composting, it has not pushed for comprehensive, territory-wide recycling as Sarauw has wished.

A Matter of Priorities
It’s a matter of priorities. With court action pending, Springer said the WMA’s ongoing effort is compliance with the current consent decrees, which includes solid waste management. She cited major initiatives including a new subtitle D landfill for St. Croix, expansion of the Bovoni Landfill, and construction of a transfer station on St. John.

Sarauw said at times poor management and underfunding have caused problems for the Waste Management Authority, but additional funding to launch a recycling initiative won’t necessarily solve the problem.

“The VI Waste Management Authority currently owes $30 million to its vendors, and any funding will go towards those payments,” Sarauw said in May.

Noting that Waste Management has been operating without a permanent executive director for more than a year, Sarauw said it might be worth considering a major organizational change – perhaps moving it back as a division of Public Works. (Legislation to remove waste management operations from the Department of Public Works and create VIWMA as a separate entity was passed in December 2003.)

A Better Move?
Sen. Marvin Blyden, who worked with Sen. Neville James during the 32nd Legislature to enact a source separation bill in 2018, doesn’t see consolidating WMA with Public Works as a viable option. WMA is largely funded through federal grants, which could be jeopardized by such a move, he said, and saddling Public Works with WMA’s debts would only serve to undermine that department.

A better move, Blyden said, would be to fill the board with members who have the expertise and the capacity to move forward on the complex issues which WMA must resolve.

WMA is governed by a seven-member board, according to its website; only four members serve on the current board, Springer said. They are: Chairman Keith Richards, assistant commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources; Vice Chairman Nelson Petty Jr., commissioner of the Department of Public Works; Secretary LaToya Williams of the Virgin Islands Lottery; and private sector representative Norbert Rosado, project manager at Limetree Bay, LLC.

Sarauw has said that change happens as citizens recognize that “they are the government,” and individuals who want to see recycling implemented must continue to exert pressure from the private sector.

“We have to start with education to make people know why it matters,” Blyden said. “We don’t have to start on a large scale, but we have to start somewhere.”

Part 2: How business impacts – and is impacted by – recycling or lack thereof.