Incentivizing the informal waste management sector in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti
A recent article in The Guardian: “Haiti could solve its drastic plastic problem and help its most vulnerable” highlights some of the waste management issues and opportunities in Haiti that were exacerbated by the earthquake on January 12th, 2010. The quake impacted, among other things, “fragile sewage systems in Port-au-Prince and other towns and cities were almost entirely destroyed, causing waste to run through street gutters in many of the poorest areas.” This only furthered the preexisting issue that “during heavy rains and tropical storms, the gutters became congested by plastic drink bottles and bags, causing overflows into homes and shops, ruining business, and threatening health.”
This problem at the nexus of public health and waste management was sought to be addressed in part by a 2012 ban on plastic bags and styrofoam, but there is a feeling that “despite the ban on plastics, we are importing far more soft drinks in plastic bottles and foods in polythene [*British for polyethylene] wrappings than ever before.” Adding to this is a Wold Bank report forecasting a doubling of waste generation in countries like Haiti in the next 20 years.
I arrived in Port-Au-Prince for the first time on Valentine’s Day 2010, just over a month after the earthquake, as part of a small response team of keen Permaculturalists from around the globe that quickly honed in on WatSan/WASH (Water and Sanitation/Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) as a focus area for our time there. Through this work we set-up human and solid waste management systems in a handful of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, and led some coursework for community members on various aspects of water and waste management. Informational sessions on source separation and diversion of waste streams in resource pools was well received; but at the time the only recycling facility had been considerably damaged and municipal waste management (Service Metropolitain de Collecte des Résidus Solides or SMCRS) was under the strain of rubble and camp waste movement.
Due to the destruction of the recycling facility many who had held informal positions as waste collectors no longer had an avenue for income, and the incentive for waste cleanup we lessened considerably. This was replaced in by cash-for-work programs by “private and government-run companies” that support “internally displaced people living in post-earthquake camps (to) collect 300-600lbs of plastics a week.” This has evolved now somewhat as “the field of waste recovery in Haiti has developed significantly over the past few years, thanks to the emergence of an international market for secondary raw materials, especially in China.” This burgeoning demand offers the backbone of market-based mechanisms to address the poverty-environmental nexus.
The monetization of wastes, which has long been the lot of the “2 million informal waste-pickers“, begins to attract more formal business interests as price points increase for recovered materials. While there is a need for incorporated entities to engage with foreign buyers and export procedures there remains considerable value in enhancing, not replacing, the informal waste management sector. Cairo, Egypt offers a cautionary tale of waning public support for privatized waste management systems that displaced the long toiling and exceedingly efficient Zabaleen. The Zabaleen, Cairo’s long time informal waste managing community, and their story are the focus of this documentary that explores the impacts of privatized waste management on their lives.
Port-Au-Prince may do well to heed the experiences faced in other places. By supporting the informal waste sector and developing it into a more formalized process developing cities can address protection, process, and responsibility based drivers. Developing cities who adopt such programming avoid the mistake, a difficult one to repair, of letting the understanding of wasted resource value slip away from public understanding, as has happened in most developed nations. This understanding is critical to creating closed-loop or cradle-to-cradle holistic management that is at the frontier of waste programming. The rebuking of waste as a concept in place of wasted resource is necessary should our species ever seek to temper its impacts and approach sustainability. By formalizing not just the informal waste managers, but also their ethos pertaining to resource value, developing nations can address the needs of today’s communities while placing themselves at the cusp of resource management and possibly a more stable future than those countries who continue to believe that waste exists.
For more perspective on the waste-environment nexus and the potential for developing nations to avoid the waste generation related pitfalls of developed ones read this other short piece of mine.