The ever growing heap of garbage on Grand Cayman dubbed Mount Trashmore is getting taller reports Journalist Basia Pioro McGuire.
Its size was driven home when photos taken from the deck of a cruise ship in April 2009 by local anti-trash advocate Kerry Horek drew a groundswell of ire. They dramatically depict the mountain of garbage that is the George Town landfill looming over Seven Mile Beach.
At one point last year it topped 75 feet, according to Leon Watson of the Department of Environmental Health.
But while the height might seem shocking, considering that approximately 120,000 tons of garbage is being dropped off at the dump annually, it’s not like the pile is going to get any smaller anytime soon.
“We do get a lot of plastic, and we get so many wooden pallets, now that they are not being shipped off the Island anymore,” says Watson.
“The amount of waste that we get in, over 90 per cent of it comes from outside Cayman, which makes it quite hard to say what we should be reducing.”
Based on a population of 65,000, that makes about 1,500 kilos or 3,300 pounds of trash PER PERSON that is heading to the dump.
Since the photos circulated last year, however, not much has been publicly aired by those responsible for waste management in Cayman on what the future holds for the smelly monument to Cayman’s rocketing growth over the past decades.
The landfill does make the news from time to time, In May 2006, then-Works minister Arden McLean announced his mission to deal with its continued growth.
At that time, the Caymanian Compass reported the minister had said a reassessment of waste management strategies throughout the Cayman Islands was under way, and that the Ministry was looking at several different kinds of waste management systems, including waste-to-energy.
These days, Government is playing its cards close to its chest when it comes to details about any plans for Cayman’s garbage.
There once was a plan
In 2003, the Waste Disposal Options Review Committee produced a report on of Cayman’s waste management options. That group was succeeded by the Solid Waste Strategic Management Committee, which held its first meeting in March 2007.
It was initially comprised of five elected government officials including McLean and government representatives: Department of Environmental Health Director Roydell Carter, Deputy Director Sean McGinn and Communication, Works and Infrastructure Permanent Secretary Carson Ebanks.
The hope was to provide informed recommendations for dealing with Cayman’s waste in light of a number of options that have been put forward in recent years.
Today, the dump’s future is in the hands of the new Ministry of Works, District Administration and Gender Affairs headed by Minister Juliana O’Connor Connolly and Chief Officer Kearney Gomez. More has changed than just the government. McGinn, the man in charge of solid waste and the dump, left his post in November 2009 and has yet to be replaced.
What, no recycling?
Actually, according to Angelo Roy, the Department of Environmental Health’s supervisor for recycling operations, recycling is in fact being practiced, to a degree, by those in charge of Cayman’s trash.
“We recycle used motor oil, tires, and batteries, for instance,” says Roy.
Aluminium cans are also being collected, processed, baled and shipped off-Island, albeit on a relatively small scale.
“Last year, we shipped off about three tons of aluminium cans, which may not seem like a lot but it takes about 45 cans make a pound,” says Roy.
The Department collects cans from bins placed at each of the Island’s supermarkets. What most people don’t know is that they will also pick up 35-gallon bags of empty cans from businesses and other groups.
Roy notes that due to limited resources, it’s preferable for people to drop the cans off either at the bins or at the landfill.
“But metal is definitely what we are recycling the most,” he says.
In recent years, attempts to sell the dump’s scrap metal ended in controversy, most recently with the Matrix affair.
At an August 2009 Public Accounts Committee hearing on the matter, the Compass reported the government received only $310,000 of the $1.25 million it was owed, while Matrix only removed about 6,000 of the estimated 16,000 tons of metal waste stored at the landfill.
While the material that was already baled is now being moved off-Island by another contractor, the Ministry is looking for a new company to take over the much more substantial job of removing what’s left.
Growing, growing interest
The dump is not just the Government’s issue – it’s becoming everyone’s.
Its neighbours, not surprisingly, are particularly interested in what the government is planning. In 2006, the Compass reported that Camana Bay developer Dart was interested in taking over the landfill, but the deal fell through.
Since then, Dart has been monitoring the dump’s development closely.
“As an adjacent land owner, Dart (Realty) Ltd. shares the broader community’s concerns about the landfill and is eager to see a sustainable solution implemented,” said Christine Maltman, a senior manager with the Dart Group.
“Over the years we, like the Government, have commissioned our own research to educate ourselves on the opportunities and challenges of solid waste management on a small island like Grand Cayman,” she continued.
“We know that there are no easy solutions to address the current landfill which now stands at approximately 80 feet tall.”
She said the company had recently hosted a number of discussions bringing together citizens and some of the researchers to help better understand the various thoughts and options available to the country.
“As it is quite timely, we will be organising a few more such discussions around the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, and will be inviting interested members of the public to participate,” she said.
“We are pleased that the Government is committed to addressing this problem and we hope to work closely with them to find the right long-term, sustainable solution in the best interest of the entire country.”
David Hansen has been visiting Cayman for past 18 years. He knows his garbage. A professional engineer by trade with extensive experience in waste to energy facilities, he’s also the chairman of Landfill Service Corporation, which makes a product the department sprays to cover the landfill.
Hansen recalls that the landfill’s beginnings were quite modest: a pit dug in the marl, once a fair distance from town.
“Cars were used up to fill up the bottom, which was full of brackish water,” he says.
He also recalls that, years later, the idea was proposed to locate the landfill further outside of George Town.
“Moving it seems highly unlikely now,” he says. He’s not alone in realising that whatever happens, provisions need to be made to deal with the existing dump no matter what solutions are proposed.
A tough business model
Hansen also points out that the desire to reduce waste from an environmental standpoint on one hand, and finding a financially sustainable solution for Cayman’s waste on the other is complicated from a business standpoint.
“For example in San Diego, the problem is that reduction of waste means reduced incomes for the landfill operators,” he says.
When a private company, rather than a government, comes into manage a landfill, it’s looking to make a profit. That usually involves committing a municipality to guaranteed tipping volumes and implementing generally higher tipping fees.
He’s not sure any project that goes ahead won’t cost the government.
“Landfills are normally paid for with a tipping fee, from about $40 to $75 a ton,” he says.
“Right now there is a zero-fee system here in Cayman. But Government is the main customer and DoEH collects most of the garbage. The big volume of garbage is coming from the DoEH.”
It’s not a big jump to figure out who will likely be saddled with those tipping fees.
These sorts of problems have stymied waste to energy facilities across North America.
“That phenomenon is going to be a long term pattern everywhere,” he says.
Something has to happen
Currently, two very general options exist for the George Town landfill.
One is capping it, turning off the flow of water, and hoping for the best.
The other is establishing a waste-to-energy plant. A waste-to-energy system is not the same as an incinerator, which merely burns the waste that goes into it.
Ranging from the simple to the extremely high tech, the waste-to-energy systems on the market all have their pros and cons.
Decisions like whether down the road, Cayman is going to be recycling cans and plastic, composting organic waste or recycling the ash that’s generated need to be in place. Different technologies require different fuel stocks. Gasification produces combustible gas, hydrogen, and synthetic fuels, which can be burned to make energy.
Thermal polymerization produces synthetic crude oil, which can be further refined, while pyrolysis produces combustible tar, bio-oil and chars. The newer kid on the block, plasma arc gasification, doesn’t actually burn the trash but uses extremely high heat to break it down into char and something called syngas, which is usable for fuel cells or generating electricity. It’s a messy process, with many kinks if recent pilot projects in Canada are anything to go by.
All these processes also need to deal with the exhaust that comes out of the stacks. The trash that goes in may in some cases actually be nicer to the planet than what’s contained in the emissions and byproducts.
Hansen suggests that by diverting a portion of what’s dropped off at the dump before it hits the power plant, a waste-to-energy facility suitable for Cayman would not need to be that large, perhaps handling about 200 tons of waste a day.
Fresh trash could be mixed with existing dump contents.
“You could programme it to take about 25per cent extra materials that are slowly mined out of the existing dump,” suggests Hansen.
“In terms of lowering the level of the dump, it would be a slow takedown but is a long term picture, it won’t happen fast but it won’t cost a lot either,” he says.
“A good reason to do it is that eventually you could dig it out all the way to the bottom, line it properly and create a sustainable landfill on the same site.”
A hypothetical arrangement, with a receiving area, incinerator, ash processing area, composting area, and temporary and permanent storage areas might cost between $50 to $100 million.
By extending the length of time the site is usable, “such an arrangement would transform the landfill from a 20 year operation to a 100 year operation,” he says.
But he says the financing is always based on a promise to pay, which in this case would be Government. At current costs, it would be about a 20-year payoff for the landfill operator.
A gassy mystery
While mining the trash pile for fuel may seem relatively simple, Hansen points out that gas control needs to be taken into account whether the landfill is capped or mined.
“Right now, if you installed a flare system you would likely learn there is a lot of landfill gas in there,” he says.
Decomposing organic matter creates what’s known as biogas, which is rich in methane and can be tapped to create energy.
“I have been to places where the operators have said no we don’t have any gas, and we installed a flare and within two years there was a two-megawatt power plant in place.”
By volume, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes landfill gas typically contains 45 to 60 per cent methane and 40 to 60 per cent carbon dioxide.
Landfill gas also includes small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, ammonia, sulfides, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and nonmethane organic compounds such as trichloroethylene, benzene, and vinyl chloride.
It’s also worth considering that, over time, landfill gas can accumulate in nearby pipes or buildings. Under certain conditions, it can cause an explosion to occur.
No need to take the plunge
“I hope that when the people making the decision about which route to take are evaluating the responses, they give their attention to proven technology,” says Hansen.
He thinks starting out small, in the understanding that it may not work exactly as hoped might be the best solution.
“Size it for a smaller plant, divert as much garbage as possible and if it does work, great, then it can be played out fully,” he says.
“In Cayman there is the possibility to put in a good system.”
He says that the key is figuring out what is realistically doable in today’s economic climate.
“In the 20 years that I have been in this business, we find that the success of projects relies on 49 per cent technology, and 51 per cent politics and economics,” he says.
He stresses the importance of proven technology. “You have to be very careful. I have been in the business long enough to say that if it was my money, I would want to make sure I could go to a facility like mine that is operating successfully,” he says.
“When money is limited proven technology is the responsible and safest option.”