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Waste or Treasure?

April 13 2015 - by Dr. David Lee, CLP's Environment Specialist

Everyone knows that pollution may be caused by wastes (solid, liquid, gases) discharged into the environment in amounts beyond its natural assimilative capacity.  I would like to suggest that we do a reframing exercise.  I would like to posit that wastes are just resources that are out of place.  I first heard these words many years ago sitting in my coastal zone management undergraduate class.

In the manufacture of sugar, among the wastes generated is molasses which is fermented to produce rum.  We don’t recognise this as a waste, we call it a by-product, because it is utilised.  Similarly, bagasse is also a waste product of the sugar manufacture process which is used in energy production by burning in boilers or for litter in chicken coops.

green-recycling-iconRum manufacture also produces wastewater that if discharged to a stream will result in a foul odour due to the organic material robbing the water of its oxygen allowing anaerobic sulphur bacteria to flourish which produce hydrogen sulphide.  This hydrogen sulphide is characterised by a “rotten egg” smell and is poisonous.  However, this wastewater is also high in nutrients as well as organic matter and has been shown to be an effective liquid fertiliser improving sugar cane yields while substituting inorganic chemical fertilizers.

The bauxite industry produces copious quantities of “red mud” after the alumina is extracted by the use of caustic soda.  To date they have been stored in sealed ponds after improved extraction and reuse of caustic soda.  Early attempts in utilising the red mud for making bricks for the construction industry failed because the bricks proved to be radioactive.  Recently, it has been shown that the red mud also contains rare earth metals which are essential for use in the electronics industry (phones, computers, tablets, etc.).  There are now efforts being made to commercially extract the rare earth metals that although present in small amounts fetch high prices.

Solid wastes generated by our municipalities, which take up limited space in most of our Caribbean countries, contain organic material that can be composted to produce soil conditioner. This soil conditioner can then be used to grow grass for lawns.  The organic fraction along with plastics and used tires can also be used to create energy.  Papers generated by offices if shredded find use as packaging material or may be used to create the padded lining of coffins.

junk-and-treasureThe examples above show that one person’s waste can indeed be someone else’s treasure.  The opportunity has to be recognised and managed properly - resulting in development while helping to maintain a healthy environment.

What processes do you have that create wastes?

Can these wastes be reused?

Can these wastes be utilised in some other process to create useful products?

What policies do we need to have that encourage this type of reframing?