Illegal Burning of Waste At Landfill Sites In Trinidad and Tobago Heightens Air Pollution Risks

Illegal burning of waste in Trinidad and Tobago is a growing problem, releasing pollutants into the air and posing risks to both the environment and public health.
 illegal burning of waste is a growing problem, releasing pollutants into the air and posing risks to both the environment and public health.

“Activists and NGOs Rally for Stricter Measures to Curb Illegal Waste Burning, Urging Environmental and Climate Justice in Trinidad and Tobago”

In Trinidad and Tobago, there are four landfills: Beetham, Forres Park, Guanapo, and Tobago. The first three landfills are in Trinidad and are managed by the Trinidad and Tobago Solid Waste Management Company Limited (SWMCOL), while the Tobago landfill is managed by the Tobago House of Assembly.

These landfills facilitate waste collection on a grander scale. But there is a growing concern as it relates to the pollutant being released into the air through the illegal burning of waste. The impact of openly burning waste has created severe climate, human, and ecological concerns for surrounding communities.

Waste is collected in municipalities in Trinidad and Tobago and then transported to landfills.

In Trinidad, these waste sites receive approximately 700,000 metric tonnes of waste per year, or 1500 to 2000 metric tonnes per day. The waste comprises 66% household waste and 33% of industrial, commercial, and institutional origin. However, there are significant differences in waste collection at each site. The Beetham Landfill receives approximately 500 metric tonnes per day, while Forres Park and Guanapo receive 300 metric tonnes per day. In Tobago, although not quantified, a report by the Tobago House of Assembly states that areas such as Scarborough and Rockley Vale have generated the most waste, with higher amounts of paper and paperboard waste, plastics, and textiles.

Of the four landfills, Beetham is the most vulnerable to the illegal burning of waste, the prevalence of scavengers, and illegal activities due to its proximity to residential areas. At Beetham, there is limited surveillance and security.

The Beetham landfill has also encountered greater smoke emissions from fires, extending as far as the city of Port of Spain. This is then followed by the Forres Park landfill in Claxton Bay, with few occurrences of fire emanating from the site.

Beetham residents experience smoke emissions from waste burning at the landfill regularly. Jahbari Franklyn, a Beetham resident, says the situation is concerning.

He said, “My area doesn’t experience as much as before, but you can say once every 2 weeks. It probably took about 2–3 days to fully clear. I don’t know what they can do for that, to be honest, but they could try and keep people out of the landfills, stop unnecessary machinery, and put more security around the district.”

Jahbari says that smoke emissions and air pollutants are an ongoing and problematic issue for Beetham residents. Small fires do not cause so much damage, but the smoke from larger fires travels all the way to Port of Spain.

Illegal Burning of Waste At Landfill Sites In Trinidad and Tobago Heightens Air Pollution Risks

Fires at the Beetham landfill have been observed for years. Christianne Zakour is an environmental advocate and has recalled large fires in 2014, 2015, 2022, and 2023. She highlighted that the smoke emissions from the fire in 2014 resulted in the temporary halt of her classes at Holy Name Convent in Port of Spain. She said, “The fire was so large that smoke spread across the entire northwest peninsula. We were sent home from school that week, and I had a friend who was on bedrest because her asthma had aggravated so badly. I still remember the smell and the haze.”

This was also the case on April 6, 2023, when a fire at the southern tip of the landfill discharged a large plume of smoke into the Beetham and Port of Spain areas. In these instances, the air quality becomes extremely hazardous, taking a day to clear up.

Activists, residents, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are actively advocating for policy changes and the introduction of more stringent measures to reduce the occurrence of illegal burning of waste at these sites. One of the advocates is Gary Aboud, Corporate Secretary for Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS). Aboud strongly advocates for the need for environmental and climate justice. He has documented occasions of burning waste at the Beetham landfill and how it has impacted communities and ecological structures in Trinidad and Tobago. When asked about his views on the illegal burning of waste and what’s required to address this issue, he shared his perspectives on the harm caused by these activities. He said, “You can’t just light a fire and burn it, but if it’s done openly, it pollutes the city, pollutes the people, and pollutes the people who live there.”

These effects continue to impact the population, environment, ecological elements, and climate. The burning of waste has produced higher amounts of chemicals and components that impact air quality and the ocean. According to Aboud, “The Beetham is burning, and the plastics that they’re burning are chemicals that are in the air. It gets into the ecosystem, gets into the water.”

When waste burning occurs regularly at sites such as Beetham, this exacerbates health, environmental, and climate effects in the long run. The components emitted from smoke consist of hazardous particles that heighten climate risks throughout the country. Compounds such as particle pollutants pose great climate and ecological concerns. Particle pollutants (the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air) can lead to visibility impairment, crop damage, and acidification of lakes and other water-based areas. Compounds derived from particle pollutants such as black carbon contribute to global warming.

Another site with increased waste burning is the Forres Park landfill in Claxton Bay. Residents such as Akim Augustus say that the frequency of smoke emissions in the area has increased, occurring approximately every day. The impact of illegal burning in this area reflects the reporting of smoke emissions on January 6, 2023, which resulted in the closure of two schools.

Illegal Burning of Waste At Landfill Sites In Trinidad and Tobago Heightens Air Pollution Risks

The waste management strategies of SWMCOL have changed throughout the years. Before the landfills, there were authorised open-burning dumps in Beetham and Guanapo. When the implementation of landfills began, a third landfill at the Forres Park site in Trinidad and the Studley Park Landfill in Tobago were introduced. These were part of the restoration strategy, with key initiatives being the isolation and extinguishment of all fires and the development of monitoring systems. Despite such efforts, landfilling poses several health and climate concerns of its own, becoming a preservation site for waste rather than a disposal site with insufficient surveillance and monitoring.

The risks these acts pose to the climate have led organizations to advocate for changes in waste management and disposal strategies.

Sapphire Alexander, founder of Caribbean Feminist and a climate justice advocate, is concerned about the rates of pollution throughout the country. She explained that the lack of public awareness of the link between air pollution and climate change enables civilians to engage in activities like burning rubbish and informal slash-and-burn agriculture, which are also harmful.

“What is the bigger solution? It’s to find people who care.” This was the advice given by Gary Aboud on combating waste burning and mitigating the harmful effects of air pollution. Aboud says that through climate justice initiatives, enhanced monitoring, and reinforcement of waste management policies, waste burning can be mitigated. This requires authorities such as SWMCOL and the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) to implement strategies such as a Sustainable Solid Waste Management System, which mitigates actions from the operations of unsanitary landfilling and activities of the informal sector such as illegal waste salvaging, leachate migration, and poor air quality. Some of their direct initiatives for this strategy include the closure and rehabilitation of the Beetham and Guanapo landfills and the provision of public awareness and education.

Following legislation and educational initiatives, there are proposals for changes in waste management and recycling strategies. Christianne shared that a solution would be for people to cut back on what they consume, reuse, and recycle. She shared that through these efforts, she dreams of guiding the country to a circular economy where such outputs are cycled back into the system and where products are designed for durability rather than a single use or built with planned obsolescence. She acknowledged that, though this is a long-term policy, the solutions are to be constructed with stakeholders.

Practises such as this would reinforce the duty of care that organisations such as SWMCOL have for the population, environment, and climate. It can also provide opportunities for organisations throughout Trinidad and Tobago to develop mitigation strategies of their own to reduce open waste burning in any location. Recognising how human activities in this way can exacerbate climate change can further promote change, learning, and repair.

“This story was published with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.”

This story was published by News 5 Belize with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Princess Charles

Princess Charles

Princess is a Trinidadian writer and blogger with articles in the fields of human rights, labour laws, and occupational safety and health. She is an advocate for labour rights, mental health, disability rights, and climate justice. With a degree in Occupational Safety and Health, she centres her work on providing safer spaces and risk-reduction strategies for communities and the environment.

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