Published 1 year ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Artem Beliaikin/Pexels
Our vision is to embed effective recycling across the region’s islands and enable value-added processing of materials where it makes commercial sense — but we’ve been held back by many challenges. For businesses and brands that sell into the Caribbean, it’s an opportunity to be part of our mission and walk their talk around plastic pollution reduction and circularity.
Hot sun; sandy beaches; and warm, turquoise waters. It’s what locals, as well as
32m tourists a year, love about the Caribbean. But that pristine vision is
being spoiled by waste. Tons of it.
The stats make for difficult reading. The Caribbean imports over US$1.8bn
in packaged products annually, and 10 of the 30 highest per capita polluters
of single-use plastics in the world are Caribbean islands. The Caribbean Sea
is regarded as the second most plastic-contaminated space after the
Mediterranean Sea, with estimates of plastic waste ranging from 600 to 1,414
plastic items per square kilometer.
Most islands in the region have either limited sorting and recycling facilities
or none at all — which means recycling rates range from 4 to 10 percent. That
leads to overflowing landfills, illegally dumped or burned waste, and rubbish
finding its way into rivers and seas. The consequences are widespread — while
plastic pollution in our
makes the headlines, it is also damaging the health of the islands and the
who live on them.
There are a number of reasons the issue hasn’t been tackled effectively.
Established recyclers are undercapitalized; and many attempting to make ends
meet in waste sectors that are overly political, inefficient and sometimes
corrupt. They also battle with poor economies of scale, a lack of investment in
and high shipping costs. At the government level, policy change is painstakingly
slow and there is limited knowledge of recyclables management.
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But the wider truth is, many brands that tout their sustainability credentials
continue to skirt responsibility for thousands of tons of plastic that goes
straight into Caribbean landfills. Addressing the problem will take more than a
few bottle-return schemes and the occasional ban on single-use plastics.
As a long-established investor in Caribbean commodity supply chains, we at
Windward Commodities are eager to
contribute to the solution. That’s why we’ve founded CARE
Caribbean in partnership with All Caribbean
— a recycled materials trader and consulting firm. Our vision is to embed
effective recycling across the region’s islands and enable value-added
processing of materials where it makes commercial sense.
In practice, this means supplying fit-for-purpose sorting and baling equipment
on each island and training people to use it, establishing education programmes
in businesses and schools, and rolling out a waste-tech solution to track and
trace materials to their end use.
But we’ve been held back by a number of challenges.
We created a detailed regional plan — including feedback from recyclers, cruise
liners, hotels, supermarkets and shipping companies on material volumes and
challenges. We specified and sourced equipment, modelled (ever increasing)
shipping costs and engaged solid-waste management authorities. We were excited.
But, despite interest from major development banks, there simply wasn’t enough
live data for them to take investment forward.
And even if that data did exist, we were stuck. Everyone recognises that
something needs to be done; but nobody is willing to take risk in the sector
without a major private-sector investor to back the minimum lending ticket of
more than US$20m the banks require.
We turned for funding to companies that import and sell huge quantities of
products into the region. They were interested in the potential of a profitable
operation once it had been proven in a pilot. But that interest didn’t extend to
Effectively tackling regional challenges requires local solutions, even when
they aren’t commercially attractive. The only way to make that work is through
region-wide investment, and that’s not on the cards right now.
As a high-risk, high-impact opportunity with real potential, applying for grant
funding was our next option. From experience, we know this is an arduous and
opaque process. It’s time consuming and often involves considering complex,
academic information to satisfy key criteria that has limited practical or
commercial value. In one case we waited for more than five months to receive a
one-line email. We’ve had some success here, but it is a long process that
doesn’t lend itself to nimble action.
We managed to secure support for equipment for a pilot project on a small island
where there is no recycling. We drafted a contract with the local solid waste
management authority and involved a fantastic NGO to carry out sorting and
recycling operations on the ground. But after seven months attempting to get the
equipment up and running with the authority, the project stalled. We hope to
have it back on track soon, but there is little urgency on the ground from local
Amid the difficulties, there is cause for optimism. The key lesson we’ve learned
is that developing strong relationships with the private sector is critical.
We’ve begun doing that locally, regionally and internationally.
For example, we’re working with an international hotel chain, whose management
team are committed to action. It’s a small step on the way to the huge shifts
needed in education, infrastructure and policy across the region; but one change
is often the trigger for many more.
We’ve found that accessing private-sector support and independent funding
accelerates change, partly because it avoids local politics and bureaucracy. And
once established, recycling facilities are visible and positive additions to
communities. They build momentum by attracting interest and sponsorship from
businesses and can become centres for engagement and learning.
Where good recyclers exist, we can scale them up. Where they don’t, companies
and partnerships can be formed. Solid-waste authorities in the region are keen
to work with companies that bring cash and experience, since they have little to
spare themselves. In return, they keep the flow of material coming — which is
vital in a sector in which margins are tight and volume is critical.
Despite the challenges, we’re not giving up. CARE Caribbean continues working to
establish simple recycling and sorting operations. But in a region where we’re
often starting from scratch, we need investment to make this happen quickly. For
businesses and brands that sell into the Caribbean, that’s an opportunity to
become part of our vital mission and walk their talk around plastic pollution
Published Jul 4, 2022 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Salina Toll is Operations Director at Windward Commodities — which develops profitable brands and sustainable supply chains for the benefit of smallholder commodity producers around the world.