The Day of Reckoning
With China’s ban on foreign garbage and GovGuam’s failure to implement a successful recycling program, it’s up to every resident to keep Guam clean
Deep in the heart of the Marianas Trench you’ll find a discarded Spam can, plastic bags and a long consumed Fanta from the late 1970s. There is no sacred place for litterbugs. With Guam being the nearest landmass to the Marianas Trench, where else did these pieces of trash come from?
Unfortunately, solid waste management on Guam has been a unresolved challenge and the island’s recycling efforts have forever been stuck in their nascent stage.
Last year, China implemented a ban on foreign garbage, creating a crisis for the recycling industry worldwide, Guam included.
China’s foreign garbage ban is creating anxiety. “There are whole states in a panic, because they've collected so many recyclables but they can't send them to where they've always been sent to anymore,” said Eric Hsueh, general manager of Pyramid Recycling.
Each year, the local recycling industry collects 42,000 tons of recyclable materials. “This drastic change over the recent year has created a lot of difficulties,” Hsueh said.
And Guam residents’ slobby habits — the lack of solid waste management on the household level, for instance —are not helping.
How can Guam fix this problem? Throughout the year, various groups and organizations coordinate cleanups to tackle littering, yet nothing seems to change.
Any obvious answer would include harsher fines or even surveillance cameras, yet these measures do not get at the heart of the problem.
“GAIN has done a cleanup near Sanchez because it's close to the shelter and it's helping the Yigo community. Other groups have done cleanups there as well, but it's just trashed so fast,” said Peggy Denney, program administrator of i*recycle. “Whole desks, mattresses, beds, sofas and TVs; it's just appalling. I don't know what the answer is. Kids need service learning but a lot of them, they don't want to do cleanups.”
“Ask yourself where you’re going to throw it later and do you have money to throw it away properly or will you dump it in the jungle. The cost of making recycling happen has gotten higher.”— Eric Hsueh, Pyramid Recycling
Denney believes that the biggest change must not come just from those in power, but all of us living on Guam. “What I really want to see first is encouraging changes in people's purchasing habits. So they should purchase less plastic to begin with,” Denney said.
Paul Tobiason, president of the Recycling Association agrees that everyone must take responsibility. “There are almost 170,000 people on island and they all make trash, even the babies. I can't do everything, but at least, I can do something,” he said. “Everyone can do their small part. The few people that do make the effort are probably in the minority. If you see litter, why not pick up just a few pieces and dispose of it properly? This would be a good role model and others might do the same. If just 50,000 residents were doing such things, we would be a bit like clean Singapore.”
Tobiason knows that it requires hard discipline to really follow through with sustainability. “While it's very good that Guam Solid Waste Authority provides bins for recycling, not everything that could be recycled gets to them, because it may not be clean,” he said. “Everything I recycle is rinsed and washed clean, even aluminum foil. A tuna fish can or corned beef is washed with soap and water so there is no smell or grease. Therefore, no ants, flies or cockroaches. It may not be perfect but it's the best I can do.”
The GSWA doesn’t require waste to be washed, yet Tobias’s simple ‘act of kindness’ is actually more than helpful to get recyclables properly recycled, meaning reused.
Guam has a Recycling Revolving Fund, which Tobiason suggested be tapped to help local recycling companies stay in the black and remain profitable. “I don't think this should be called a subsidy. It’s payment for ‘services rendered.’ We want material shipped off-island and not put in a hole in the ground (landfill). GovGuam could make material valuable. Zero value is the fundamental problem that I see. Global Recycling in Dededo ‘buys’ scrap steel (pipes, rebars, cans, old bicycles, etc.) for 5¢/kg. Perhaps the fund could be used to increase this to 25¢/kg.”
In 2010, the Legislature passed “the Guam Beverage Recycling Container Act,” which is meant to encourage locals to recycle glass, metal or plastic drink containers. “Lawmakers passed a ‘bottle bill’ and beverage containers would have a redemption value of 5¢,” said Tobias.
“Oregon started this in 1970 and the redemption value was also 5¢. That's almost 50 years ago. I've suggested 10¢. At 10¢, I doubt that you’d find any beverage cans and beer bottles in our waste stream.”
Guam is listed alongside 10 states with bottle recycling laws. The status of implementation of the Guam law, however, remains unclear. In 2013, Sabrina Cruz-Sablan, special projects coordinator for the Guam Environmental Protection Agency, told the Mayors’ Council of Guam that no funding mechanism existed to implement the program. In June 2017, then Public Auditor Doris Flores Brooks informed the legislature that the Office of Public Accountability had yet to audit the implementation of the Beverage Container Recycling Act.
Last year, Sen. Regina Biscoe-Lee’s “Choose to Reuse” bill that will ban single-use plastic bags became a law that will take effect in 2021. As with existing recycling laws, we have yet to see how this one will turn out.
In the long run, Denney said it is up to individuals to be environmentally conscious. “We need to work with the community to try to reduce the generation of plastic bottles,” she said. “I don't think a bottle bill approach will work at this time. There's no money in plastic. Everyone worldwide is challenged in recycling plastic, since there's no money in it.”
Through i*recycle, Denney tries to inform the public, especially public schools, to be more sustainable. I*recycle and their partners donate bins for aluminum cans and plastic bottles to different schools. “We are expanding the program from 40 to 60 schools,” Denney said.
But maintaining the enthusiasm is a bit of a challenge. “These kinds of programs become a little lax in a while,” Denney said.
Although many schools recycle aluminum cans and plastic bottles, Denney feels that GDOE can do more to engrain sustainability to the youth. “I've been told that principals tell teachers to tear their cardboard into pieces and put it into trash bags to be thrown away,” said Denney. “Ideally you don't want biodegradables in the landfill. We have the capability of composting so much, yet we compost so little.”
While paper may seem like the one of the most basic items to recycle, it has gotten more and more difficult to do so recently. “China stopped accepting any of our paper,” said Denney. “We need to find an effective way of addressing that because right now it's all going to the landfill because we have no [efficient] options. An option can be to shred and it'd be used by farmers as mulch and it can be a very effective method of retarding weed growth. It holds the moisture when it rains, and it holds in the soil temperature.”
An ideal place to send biodegradables would be the Ordot Green Waste Facility, yet it currently isn’t accepting paper. “Ordot Green Waste Facility is doing a good job, but 90 percent of what they're composting is pallets,” Denney said. “Lots of people are encouraging entities conducting events to use biodegradables, but we need a place for those biodegradables to be composted. We need to come up with a new facility or, Ordot Green Waste needs to be permitted to receive those materials.”
Paper is not the only recyclable China has stopped accepting. “They have become incredibly strict on what they're accepting,” Denney said.
Despite the setback caused by China’s foreign trash ban, Hsueh is not too worried about his business. “I can't really tell you where we’ll send to because it's always different. The market is always changing — recycling is always changing,” he said.
Pyramid Recycling, which has been in business on Guam since 1991, always has to adapt and figure out new ways to reuse materials. “Our role is to find the best way to use recyclable material--to be diverted from the landfill,” Hsueh said.
Since the Solid Waste Management System does not allow plastic bottles and metals to be dumped in the landfill, they have to be handled by recycling companies. “What we do is constantly figuring out what's the best place for the material; it doesn’t necessarily go to China,” Hsue said. “Shipping from Guam, we must be concerned with shipping cost. I could send the same kind of plastic bottles to Africa or Russia to recycle, but it would cost so much. I have to also figure out where's the best place that it won't cost so much.”
Hsueh noted how the consumers’ habits affect the environment. “When you buy a computer, you spend several thousands of dollars, but you have to remember to be a responsible consumer,” Hsueh said. “Ask yourself where you’re going to throw it later and do you have money to throw it away properly or will you dump it in the jungle. The cost of making recycling happen has gotten higher.”
Denney noted government agencies’ own responsibility. “Every single agency should be aggressively recycling and they need to be setting the example. The government needs to be setting the example and believe me it does not,” she said. “I don't mean to sound so harsh, but I'm frustrated with GovGuam.”
And Denney won’t wait for the government to take actions. Her future plan is to open a center for the unemployed to create art with recyclable material. Denney said, “I want to work with the homeless and in particular Micronesians who struggle to find jobs and help them create things from recyclable materials. When you don't have a diploma or a GED or a driver's license or a vehicle, trying to get a job is challenging. I'd like to have a place where they can come and work for as they can, making all kinds of stuff. Then we find a way to market it, like at flea markets.”