By Bryan Manabat
Saipan --The Comprehensive Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan for the Northern Marianas aims to divert 50 percent of the islands' recyclables and compostables away from the landfills and into sustainable systems. But solid waste management planners acknowledge the stumbling blocks that can stall the process toward the desired results.
"The zero-waste initiative is an idea of really trying not set a goal of 50 percent or 10 percent, but to do the most you can,” according to Matt Nieswender, solid waste analyst at the Office of Planning and Development.” “And that's really where we want to start.”
Location is among the challenges for solid waste managers. "Unlike the U.S. mainland. honestly, of all the places on the planet the islands have a really difficult time in finding available land or space for municipal solid waste and people wanted to turn toward incineration and other things that look like kind of an easy fix, but nothing is easy," Nieswender said in an interview with the Pacific Island Times.
Besides space availability, Nieswender said funds, equipment and training pose challenges to solid waste management planning.
"So we received the appropriation from the federal government that provided a lot of money for basically preparing for the next disaster," he said. "But because disasters generate solid waste, it falls right in line and helps us in our solid waste management. A lot of money and equipment are key but also training expertise in solid waste management. We need to get the staff in our municipalities trained."
And there are issues beyond human control. "We also have a tough climate for equipment," Nieswender said. "We have to figure out a way to keep things running right. We have to have sustainable financial systems. So those are some of the obstacles basically getting in the way of the zero-waste initiative."
Planning is the first step, but people will make the difference, according to solid waste management planners. "The people of the CNMI will be the agents of change progressing and improving the systems, like solid waste, to make a cleaner, more beautiful island called 'home,'" they said.
"I think there's an underlying ethos in the community of environmental protection," Nieswender said.
However certain realities might not always be perfectly aligned with the community's ideals. The manpower shortage, for example, adds to the mountain of challenges. “Do we have heavy equipment mechanics?” Nieswender said. “Do we have people who want to drive the heavy equipment specifically in Tinian and Rota? They have labor shortages."
It is hard to set up modern systems that require heavy equipment operators when heavy equipment operators are not available, Nieswender said.
During a public hearing held Nov. 21 at the Multi-Purpose Center in Susupe, Nieswender solicited public input and responded to residents’ inquiries about the CNMI Solid Waste Management plan. Nieswender said he was thrilled about how the plan came together and the support it received from the community at the public hearing. "There were a lot of ideas and interests. We're not speaking to empty rooms. I think people want modern integrated solid waste management systems," he said.
"The feedback has been really positive," Nieswender said. "Achievable? I do think it's achievable. We see other geographic areas.”
While planners can “take ideas,” Nieswender advised residents that costs must be taken into consideration. “We will make our program right-sized for the CNMI. It might not look like Palau's or Hawaii's but it will be ours," he added.
There is no curbside collection of recyclables from residential homes in the CNMI. The municipalities do not have mandatory or universal garbage collection and there are no landfill material bans in the CNMI. Recycling system “maturity” varies in the CNMI, with many programs in the very earliest development stages, according to the Office of Planning and Development’s report.
Saipan currently has two facilities: the Marpi landfill and the Lower Base Transfer Station, which received a combined total of 32,205 tons of solid waste in 2022. Recycling activities diverted 775 tons from the facilities, leaving 31,431 tons landfilled, according to the planning agency’s report.
Tinian and Rota have no scaled solid waste data. However, according to estimates, Tinian generates 1,400 tons per year or 3.8 tons per day. Rota was estimated to generate 1,300 tons per year or 3.5 tons per day.
The CNMI's food waste diversion program has existed for many decades, providing feeds for hogs in Rota and Tinian. However, the report noted, "There is currently no centralized data collection regarding food waste diversion."
A conservative estimate of 600 to 700 tons of food waste is collected for animal feed each year in the CNMI, according to the planning agency. On Saipan, three hotels and a restaurant produce approximately 3,180 gallons of food waste a week. "Food waste diversion on Saipan for those entities listed above only totals 320 tons per year," the report said.
The total for Tinian is approximately 17.3 tons of food waste diverted per year and for Rota, approximately 50 gallons per day.