No tourists, no trash, no cash
How the pandemic impacted Guam’s waste streams
With nearly every business closed for months last year, Guam Solid Waste Authority saw a significant drop in trash from commercial entities. On one hand, it helped extend the life of the landfill, but on the other hand, it translated into a $1.3 million hit to the waste authority’s revenue.
“Most of the commercial waste decreased tremendously since Covid hit and that’s where most of the benefit we get financially comes out of the commercial waste stream,” said Larry Gast, GSWA general manager.
Conversely, GSWA noticed an increase in the residential waste stream.
Although residential customers pay monthly for the trash pickup, Gast said the payments don’t cover the full cost for the service provided.
“So it’s really doubly hurting us because our main revenue source in commercial is decreasing but the thing we don’t charge enough to recoup our costs, which is residential, is increasing,” Gast said.
The third cell at Layon has been substantially completed and recently, selected trash has started to go into that cell, Gast said. It is imperative for the island to be watchful of how much waste goes into the new cell.
“It should last longer because of Covid. We’ve been down 25 percent last year and about 17 percent this year. So that extends the life of landfill when we’re getting less waste,” Gast said.
The decrease in waste is linked to the decrease in business activity because of pandemic-related restrictions, according to Gast.
“Not only that, we have over a million visitors a year and those visitors are creating waste,” he said. “We basically lost most of the tourism industry and that has an impact on the commercial (segment). I went down to Tumon and I saw three people. That’s not normal.”
With the pandemic came the need for personal protective equipment, especially face masks.
Waste is largely considered in terms of its weight, and even though there have been more face masks brought into the island, GSWA hasn’t seen a significant impact from PPE waste, Gast said.
“It would take an unbelievable amount of them to make a huge difference just by them being used,” he said of face masks. “I’ll tell you what I have seen a lot of on the island, a lot of PPE just laying on the street.”
There were, however, issues GSWA had before 2020 that were compounded by the pandemic, including recycling efforts.
Early in the pandemic when personal protective equipment was hard to come by, recycling sorting slowed. Material is sorted by hand and without rubber gloves, masks, or other proper safety gear, it wasn’t safe for staff to sift through items such as plastic bottles that had touched strangers’ lips. The social distance policy for the staff also slowed the process, according to Gast.
Eventually, recycling was able to start up again. Gast said GSWA is still collecting the items from their customers and paying to have them sorted.
“The problem is finding some place to send it,” Gast said. China had stopped taking recycling material before the pandemic. Thailand was still taking recyclables until a ban on foreign waste went into effect this year. This leaves Indonesia as the only destination for the world’s waste. But environmentalists have warned of the looming landfill crisis in Indonesia.
So it has become more difficult to find a place to take the island’s plastics and mixed paper, Gast said. There’s demand for cardboard and aluminum cans but “most everything else costs money to get rid of it.”
Gast said nobody wants recycled plastic when it’s cheaper to make new plastic from petroleum.
“Right as the pandemic hit, we were paying $8,000 a ton to get plastics off-island. That is a ridiculous cost,” he said. “That is way too much money to be spending to try and recycle something.”
It costs considerably less, $178 a ton, to send the plastic to the landfill.
Other jurisdictions in the states also confronted the growing cost of sending items to different countries for recycling. Some communities have abandoned their recycling programs and reverted to the habit of mixing their recyclables with the rest of their waste.
That could end up happening on Guam, Gast said. “I’ve been avoiding that as much as possible."
Ideally, the island could find ways to reuse the recycled material here. “That’s the ultimate hope because then you eliminate the shipping and all that kind of stuff which is extremely expensive,” Gast said.
The agency saw more residential customers in fiscal 2020 compared to fiscal year 2019 and they hope to add more in coming years.
“One of the things we’re looking at and we’ve been discussing is what’s called an islandwide garbage collection program, which means everybody, every resident on the island has garbage collection,” Gast said.
Gast said the islandwide collection would help stabilize revenue for the agency.
For those who might not be able to afford the monthly GSWA fee, Gast said the governor is considering a subsidy plan.
GSWA ended fiscal year 2020 with 20,301 customers. The islandwide garbage collection program would also reduce illegal dumping, Gast said.