I start this blog with the conversation with my sister, because I understand how difficult it is to engage people on this subject. No one wants to talk about garbage, let alone confront it. We just want it gone from our houses, taken somewhere out of our sight – the mythical Away. Moreover, the subject is complex and few want to grapple with the complexities. Anyway, here I am, notwithstanding this probably too long introduction, to write about garbage. It will have to be in more than one blog, if I want a hope of anyone reading to the end.
The willingness of many (if not most) Jamaicans to litter the streets, gullies, rivers and pretty much everywhere stems from various underlying attitudes and beliefs. The Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica campaign set out to find out what these were. We (in my former role as CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust or JET) conducted a series of focus groups with a broad target group – employed, adult, associated with the tourist industry. The focus on the tourist industry arose because the donor was the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF). Here is what we discovered – JET called them Seven Garbage Myths.
1. You can throw garbage anywhere because a goat will eat it
This might have been true 50 years ago, before our waste stream was transformed by single use plastic and non biodegradable packaging, like Styrofoam. It is no longer true.
2. Littering creates jobs
This is actually not a myth. It's true. The incentives run in the wrong direction – the dirtier a place is, the more people are employed to clean it up and littering is actually seen as a civic act. There needs to be more garbage management jobs when the place is clean – for instance, in recycling and community composting. Every time you see a PAID cleanup, this is helping to ensure the place stays dirty. Volunteer cleanups are a different matter.
3. I am entitled to a bin whenever and wherever I need it
And if there is no bin, I am entitled to throw my garbage in the street. I will not walk with my garbage, because being a garbage man is a low status occupation and I might be perceived as a garbage man. Most types of public transportation will not allow food inside the vehicles and therefore it is thrown away at bus parks or stops or other places public transport vehicles congregate.
4. The Government must pick up my garbage
We accept responsibility for yard, but not for street. Once we are on the road, our garbage is not seen as our problem. Simple garbage handling techniques, such as properly bagging garbage, is not seen as a personal responsibility.
5. My one plastic bottle (or foam box, or sweetie paper) cannot be a problem
We do realize that we have a solid waste problem, but we are not aware of its scale. All focus group members were astounded by photographs of the amount of garbage on beaches. We no longer really see how dirty Jamaica has become.
6. All garbage is the same
We have almost no understanding that different types of garbage need to be treated differently and have not thought about the different level of harm caused by say, a discarded banana peel vs a car tyre.
7. Reduce my waste? Say what?
We are not at all concerned with reducing our waste. I’m often bemused by the wide cross section of people in my regular supermarket, from the student buying a bun and a soda to the St Andrew family with two full carts. Almost no one pays attention to the amount of plastic bags or other types of packaging they are using. Sometimes they catch my eye and if they know who I am, they look guilty, but that’s about it. C’mon guys – a fresh pineapple does not have to go into a separate plastic bag that is going to be thrown away as soon as you get home!
These myths are on the Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica website at nuhduttyupjamaica.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/nuh-dutty-up-jamaica-talking-points.pdf
The take home message is this: if we want to change the way we behave, we have to understand these underlying beliefs and combat them in various ways, including public education campaigns like Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica, but also in practical ways, such as providing bins in places where buses and taxis congregate.