Tide to Trash

Disparities undercut Belize's waste management system, and new policies are leaving residents behind.

Flies swarm at Vincent Budna’s feet as he walks through the piles of rusty paint cans, cardboard boxes and crumpled water bottles.

Smoke slowly wafts skyward from heat-induced trash fires at the edge of the gravel path, sending toxic fumes into the cloudless sky. A flock of vultures perches on a mound of fresh garbage, squawking eagerly as they feast on a moldy hunk of bread. A soft ocean breeze blows, and trash bags flutter in the wind, rippling across the 100-acre property in a wave of black, non-biodegradable plastic.

Budna glances over at the feeding frenzy. A grin spreads over his face. The birds, Budna explains, are his companions during the long, hot days at the dump. He sits in his blue plastic chair under a palm frond, waiting for people to come and drop off more bags of trash. Watching for illegal dumping. Taking it all in.

There’s beauty in the Placencia Municipal Dump, and Budna knows this better than anyone. He’s worked as the dump’s caretaker for 14 years, ensuring that the waste from this narrow strip of land off the southern coast of Belize is handled properly.

In the busy streets of Placencia, which houses only 1,500 residents but draws more than 12,000 tourists a month, the garbage pits of the dump seem like an eerie memory. Tourists stroll down freshly swept sidewalks, past souvenir shops painted bright pink and yellow, stopping for a meal at one of the many restaurants lining the beach. Tourism is the backbone of the economy.

But the dump demonstrates the dirty reality of the country’s waste management system. When he started, there were seven loads of garbage dropped off each week, Budna said. Now, he sees more than 30.

The trash in Placencia never really disappears. It’s used to build new land, a practice residents of Seine Bight, a small village five miles north of Placencia, know well. If the garbage makes it to the dump, it will sit in unlined pits, meaning groundwater contamination is likely. Sometimes, the trash makes its way into the hands of people like Radford Cacho, who supports his family by selling plastic bottles picked from the piles.

The Belizean government and environmental groups are fighting to reduce the amount of waste generated. But in many areas, there are few resources to support waste removal and the residents who rely on that waste for their economic livelihood.

“Garbage comes from what humans create,” Budna said. “If people don’t want something, they get rid of it. If you have a home, you have papers and waste stuff and food, you have garbage. It does not create itself. It does not come from the nature of this world.”

“We’re trying, you know?”

There’s only one two-lane road that connects the peninsula to mainland Belize. The Placencia Municipal dump is at the neck, down a dirt road marred with potholes. The tourist town of Placencia is nearly 20 miles south. In between sits the Garifuna village of Seine Bight, home to roughly 1,000 Belizeans of mixed African and Caribbean descent.

When Trinell Smith Martinez moved to Seine Bight 18 years ago, the land was all swamp.

Smith Martinez grew up in Dangriga, a cultural center for the Garifuna community 50 miles north of Placencia. As a child, she prayed that when she had children of her own, they wouldn’t experience poverty like she had.

When she heard there were job openings in Seine Bight, the decision was easy. She was going to build her own home, on her own land. She would make a name for herself and her family.

Her newly-procured quarter acre of land sat at the edge of town, where thick mangroves met the Placencia lagoon. The water was knee-deep, she recalled, and they had to wear tall rubber boots to begin constructing her home.

To build the land from the mangrove lagoon, Smith Martinez cut down the trees and filled the ground with gravel and sand. Her current home — a complex of four wooden houses, rebuilt after a devastating fire destroyed everything she owned — is the center of family life for her five children. It symbolizes how hard she’s worked: from a dishwasher at a restaurant to the executive chef at a resort, rising from poverty to homeownership.

Over time, Seine Bight grew, and demand for land grew with it. Smith Martinez’ neighbors have followed her lead, cutting down mangrove trees and filling in the wetland beneath.

But, in addition to sand and gravel, they also pack in heaps of garbage. Like Smith Martinez, everyone wants to own land — even if it means building on packed-in trash.

Seine Bight is located between the sea and a lagoon, with the new land largely being built on the side of the lagoon. To create a foundation for people to construct their homes upon, they must cut down mangrove trees and pack in the land with trash, gravel and sand. Photo by Hope Davison.

Removing mangrove trees with the intention of land development is a practice seen around the world, Ken Krauss, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Service who studies mangrove habitats, said. Developers will clear out mangroves along the edge of coastal zones to build roads and houses right up against the shoreline.

When you fill the land in with trash or natural debris like tree branches or wooden planks, the items will start to decompose over time, he said. The land will sink, eventually placing the community at risk of tidal flooding. Because of this, the practice is generally used for short-term development or in areas where local residents are being displaced at higher rates.

In Seine Bight, land is gold, Smith Martinez explained. As resorts expand and buy up available land, property ownership is away for villagers with few resources to rise out of poverty.

Walking down the streets of Seine Bight, trash is everywhere. If it’s not filled into the land, it’s scattered everywhere else: the community doesn’t have regular garbage collection to take waste out of residents’ homes and away to the dump.

Instead, yards are full of lumber scraps, gillnets, old car parts and shredded potato chip bags that never make it to the dump. Bottles and take-out boxes float in the lagoon. The charred remains of a garbage fire smolder at the edge of the road. The only way for many residents to get rid of their waste is to burn it — even though they know the chemicals pose major risks to their health.

“We’re trying not to burn the trash, but at the same time, if that’s the only way at this point to get the waste out of the way, then you’ve got to do what you got to do,” Smith Martinez said. “But we’re trying, you know?”

Kirwin Ramirez, the vice chair of Seine Bight Village, knows that waste management is a major problem. But paying for a garbage truck to come take the waste from the village costs several thousand dollars per month. Right now, the town doesn’t have the financial resources or physical infrastructure.

“Mine is a community that many people look down on,” Ramirez said. “We are the underdogs. It’s a community full of so much potential and very talented people, but the government does not look at us like that. They look at Placencia more because that is where the tourists go, that is where they can get more money.”

“We have more garbage coming in than ever before”

Shoes divorced from their mates, toilet paper rolls, empty bottles of sunscreen. A dirty bra, with a Pepsi can hanging off of a protruding underwire. A microwave.

Budna has watched the amount of garbage coming in from Placencia steadily increase. As the town and its surrounding villages grow, so do the number of tourists — and the quantity of trash. In two to three days, an acre of garbage arrives at the dump, he said.

“We have more garbage coming in than ever before, and in the next 10 years, we’ll have more garbage than we are facing right at this moment,” Budna said. “We know that there will be a solid impact on our environment. We need to take precautionary measures from now that we will not face that down the line.”

The Placencia Sanitation Company, a private company contracted by the municipal government, collects garbage from residents and businesses twice a week. Individuals pay $22 Belizean a month for garbage collection; businesses pay anywhere from $55 to $250 Belizean a month, Ilsa Villanueva, chairperson of the Placencia Village Council, said. The waste is taken to the dump and emptied into a 30-foot pit. When it’s full, the pit is bulldozed over — and the thick jungle foliage quickly reclaims the land.

A Lengthy Process

Drag the slider to estimate the amount of time each item takes to decompose.

Belize’s waste management system is about to get a complete overhaul. Within the next year, the Placencia dump is slated to close. All trash will go to a new $10.2 million transfer station built on adjacent property. Garbage trucks will drop off their loads at the transfer station and all recyclable materials will be sorted out manually and removed. What remains will be loaded into trailers and hauled to the Regional Sanitary Landfill, a 340-acre property between Belize City and Belmopan.

The new regional site is the country’s only sanitary landfill, meaning it’s lined with materials to prevent groundwater contamination. It also has mechanisms that collect and treat liquid waste collected from the site.

Unlike the Regional Sanitary Landfill, the pits at Placencia’s current dump are unlined. Typically, an unlined landfill has no man-made liner installed under the waste. In the U.S., unlined landfills contain a compacted layer of clay to help stop leakage and are heavily monitored, said Sara Davarbakhsh, who works with Wake County Government’s Environmental Services and Solid Waste Management in North Carolina. A dump, she said, is a term used to describe a location where trash is dumped with no protective lining — a practice that’s prohibited in the United States.

Landfills, both lined and unlined, produce a product called leachate, a compound created when household garbage is compacted and rainwater infiltrates down through the waste, drawing out a variety of compounds. An unlined landfill has the potential to leak leachate into groundwater, which can then percolate several hundred feet through the soil, she said.

In high concentrations, the compounds in leachate — which can include dissolved organic matter, ammonia and heavy metals such as mercury — are harmful to public health and the environment, Davarbakhsh said.

The transfer station is a step in the right direction, though Budna, who is hoping to work at the new facility when the dump closes, is concerned it may not be enough.

“I am sure it’s not going to work for what’s coming in the future,” he said. “They’ll have to expand. But at least for now, it’s going to help us at this time.”

“It would put me in a very difficult place”

In January, the Belizean government passed legislation to phase out single-use plastics, including styrofoam containers, plastic food utensils and shopping bags. By March 2021, the goal is to eliminate all use of the materials.

Most plastics that end up in landfills are single-use plastics, unable to be recycled under local recycling programs, Davarbakhsh said. From a waste-management perspective, banning single-use plastics will conserve finite space in landfills and prevent contamination in recycling, she said. Environmentally, a plastic ban will help keep lightweight plastics from entering rivers and oceans, where they kill wildlife that often mistake the plastics for food.

The news of the plastic ban came as a devastating blow to the plastic pickers, who come to the dump to sort through the garbage and salvage what they can sell.

In the heat of the early afternoon sun, plastic picker Radford Cacho’s hands move with practiced precision. His neon green shirt is soaked with sweat as he crouches over the garbage bags dropped off that day from homes and businesses in Placencia. But, he can’t stop. He needs to find enough bottles to make his 45-minute bicycle commute worth it. He needs to feed his family.

Radford Cacho sorts through recently-dumped trash for plastic and glass bottles. Cacho rides 45 minutes on his bicycle from Georgetown almost everyday to collect what he can and sell it to stores. Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn.

He squats lower and tears open the side of the black garbage bag, standing back as food scraps and crumpled wads of paper towel tumble out first. With great speed, he rummages through the bag, throwing aside any plastic or glass bottles he sees. These, he explains, can be sold back to the stores for 5 and 25 cents, respectively. On a good day, he can make up to $25 Belizean — enough to support his four children and 23 grandchildren.

It’s hard, dirty work. But Cacho’s life is about to get harder. When Belize’s plastic ban fully phases in, he won’t be able to sort through and find plastic bottles to sell. He’ll lose the majority of his income.

“It would put me in a very difficult place,” Cacho said.

Budna is in a similar situation. He, too, takes plastic and glass bottles that he finds at the dump and brings them home until he has enough to sell back to companies. Without the sale of plastic bottles to supplement his wages, he’ll lose about $3,000 Belizean per month.

The economic repercussions will be felt up and down the peninsula. Restaurants will likely face higher costs to purchase biodegradable or reusable materials, and small business owners will need to find alternatives to the plastics they currently depend on.

A Delicate Balance

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“The problem will never end”

Kirwin Ramirez hates seeing his community filled with trash, knowing it will never make it to the dump. Walking along the sandy gravel streets lined with beer bottles, potato chip bags and old car parts, he calls out to a child down the street. He smiles and waves, but his eyes are filled with worry. The sadness in his gaze is unmistakable.

Without more resources, without outside funding, without coordinated educational efforts, there’s not much he can do. He desperately wants to do what’s best for his community, but he knows it will take a major change to see a real difference.

“People are suffering,” Ramirez said. “If we let the problem beat us down to the ground, we aren’t going to reach anything. We’ve got to find solutions for this problem, because the problem will never end.”

A group of vultures stand on top of a mound of trash at the Placencia Municipal Dump which holds the majority of waste from the towns and villages of Placencia and Seine Bight. Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn.

Budna also knows there’s not a real end in sight. He knows the garbage trucks will keep coming, but that people will continue to dump or burn their waste illegally. But he won’t quit when there’s so much work to be done.

Sometimes, he wants to quit. But, he doubts anyone else would want to take over. There aren’t many people who want to spend their time at the dump, Budna said with a shrug. Few have the same passion to ensure the world is left a little bit cleaner, a little bit safer, for the people of Belize.

“We have all these things that affect the climate in this country and affect the climate of other countries,” Budna said. “I’ve realized garbage is something we have to take care of the right way, to help people understand that garbage has an effect and a deadly impact on each of our lives every day.”

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