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Can the circular economy help the Caribbean win its war against waste?

Green Phenix artist Erwin Sprot with one of his creations, a human figure made with beer crown caps.

Green Phenix artist Erwin Sprot with one of his creations, a human figure made with beer crown caps. Image by Sandra Weiss.

  • The Caribbean Basin is drowning in waste, especially plastic trash that’s contaminating rivers and the surrounding sea, poisoning fish and turtles.
  • For years, governments in the region turned a blind eye to waste management. But now the problem is threatening their main industry: tourism.
  • Eight Caribbean countries have joined together in the Caribe Circular alliance, which aims to implement circular-economy solutions for better waste management.
  • This requires not only a means for cleaning up and recycling mountains of trash, it also demands a major shift in cultural patterns, requiring a cooperative effort between governments, industry, NGOs and individuals. As trash continues to mount, this costly endeavor becomes a race against the clock, facing huge obstacles.

The best place to party on the Caribbean island of Curaçao is Mambo Beach, near the island’s capital, Willemstad. On weekends, DJs outperform each other, spinning the hottest music at shoreside hotels and beach clubs. Tourists and locals dance the night long, consuming beer, cocktails, rum, soft drinks, and maybe water.

Then, at 4 a.m., when the last partyers have fallen asleep on the beach’s sunbeds, the Green Phenix team arrives and starts collecting the garbage strewn by guests.

Green Phenix is a local environmental startup that has set itself a big goal: To clean up Curaçao. This is more than a civic duty — it may also be a national imperative: Waste disposal has become a serious problem on the island, which is the size of Manhattan, and it’s getting worse. The same is true on islands across the Caribbean.

“In 2020, each [Curaçao] islander produced an average of 1,200 kilograms [about 2,650 pounds] of waste per year,” says Ciaretta Profas, a government adviser on environmental policy. “That’s three times as much as usual in Latin America,” she adds. Of course, this isn’t because the inhabitants of Curaçao are particularly wasteful, but because all the garbage left behind by tourists is statistically attributed to the 150,000 inhabitants.

Profas is now part of an interdisciplinary team overhauling the island nation’s waste management system, which was underfinanced for more than 20 years and of no interest to politicians, according to a study.

“Our goal is to transition towards a circular economy,” Profas says. That’s a tall order, but one necessary for Caribbean nations to embrace if tourism is to go on thriving in the islands.

Green Phenix beach cleanup.
Green Phenix beach cleanup. Three young people collect waste on the northern shore of the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Trash buildup, much of it left by visitors, threatens the tourist industry on Curaçao. Image by Sandra Weiss.

Citizens take the lead in circular economy transformation

Sabine Berendse, the founder of Green Phenix, is pleased at the creation of hers and similar projects, but she’s also skeptical that the pace of implementation can match the urgency of the titanic trash problem.

“Currently, Mount Christoffel, with its 1,220 feet [height]” — 372 meters — “is the highest point of Curaçao,” she notes. “In five years, Mont Malpais will tower above it.“ Malpais is the island’s only dump, and is managed by a public-private association. It’s an old landfill, lacking adequate soil coverage, suffering from toxic leaching and odorous gas releases that are polluting the surrounding area.

Green Phenix was founded in 2019 by Berendse, and inspired by a morning beach walk when she stumbled across dead turtles suffocated in discarded fishing nets. Plastic refuse was everywhere.

That’s when the idea struck her: This sprawling impromptu garbage dump could be a source of regular work, lifting the self-confidence of those living on the margins of society: The unemployed, single parents, and the disabled.

Green Phenix started as a social beach cleanup program, with the salaries of the 24 part-time employees sourced from a state welfare fund. Today, it has morphed into a small business, not only cleaning beaches but also recycling some of the collected plastic waste at an old Caribbean villa on the outskirts of Willemstad.

Plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET, the most common plastic), yogurt containers composed of polypropylene (PP), cleaning agent bottles made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and aluminum cans are now collected and transformed at the recycling facility; the rest of the collected garbage still goes to Mount Malpais.

Green Phenix director Sabine Berendse at the recollection point outside Curaçao’s capital, Willemstad.
Green Phenix director Sabine Berendse at the recollection point outside Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital. Image by Sandra Weiss.

Enhancing awareness with locals and tourists

There seems to be no limit to the creativity practiced by the eight full-time employees at the Green Phenix repurposing plant. Some shred big pieces of plastic, melt them in an oven, then turn them into party decorations. Others produce plastic threads used in 3D printers to make flower vases, dishes and cups. Erwin Sprot, a 64-year-old artist, has his studio here and makes bracelets from can tops and sculptures from the crown caps of beer bottles. “For me, it’s a challenge to make art out of what others throw away,” he says.

Much of this output is sold in Irvin Bernard’s souvenir store at Mambo Beach. He’s the chair of the local business association and closely collaborates with Berendse. “We are all benefiting from this project: the hotel owners, the tourists, the locals and the environment,“ he says.

His association has joined in and tried to cut out the middleman: A few month ago, it set up bins that conscientious tourists now use for waste separation, saving Green Phenix employees the trouble and time of picking up beach trash a bottle at a time.

Information about the innovative cleanup initiative is available at Curaçao hotels, and interested tourists can even include garbage activities in their vacation itineraries: visiting the recycling factory and taking part in beach cleanups.

Green Phenix is also a social project that provides jobs to people on Curaçao, such as this local woman working at the recycling facility near Willemstad.
Green Phenix provides jobs to people on Curaçao, including this local woman working at the recycling facility near Willemstad. Image by Sandra Weiss.
“Don’t leave your waste here,” graffiti written anonymously on a wall in the capital Santo Domingo — to no avail.
“Don’t leave your waste here,” graffiti written anonymously on a wall in the Dominican Republic capital Santo Domingo — to no avail. There’s still a long path to go to institute cultural behavioral changes regarding waste disposal. Image by Sandra Weiss.

An intractable problem needing regional solutions

Green Phenix is a successful initiative, but its work is barely a drop in the ocean when compared to the rapidly rising tide of waste overwhelming the Caribbean Basin. This eco-region, composed of small island states, is drowning in waste, especially plastic pollution, which has been increasing exponentially for three decades.

According to the World Bank, the amount of plastic on Caribbean beaches far exceeds the global average, with 2,014 items per kilometer (3,241 per mile), compared to 573/km (922/mi) worldwide. It has become an eyesore and nuisance for tourism, one of the main income sources for most Caribbean nations. With vacation dollars at risk, the problem can no longer be ignored.

But the Caribbean small island states share similar unsurmountable waste management challenges: Land is very limited, so long-term reliance on landfilling is unsustainable. Likewise, exporting waste is increasingly difficult as former buyer countries such as China drop out of the market, while shipping costs have risen sharply since the COVID-19 pandemic.

These small economies also have limited resources, so it’s challenging to set up financially viable national recycling program; waste quantities are too small and recycling remains an unattractive business because the value of most waste materials is too low.

A British tourist takes a photo in the middle of heaps of garbage at a Dominican Republic beach.
A British tourist takes a photo in the middle of heaps of garbage at a Dominican Republic beach. Developing world nations have few economic resources with which to confront the astronomical plastic waste problem, even as the petrochemical industry and plastic-producing nations, including the U.S. and Russia, resist limits on production in U.N. treaty negotiations. Image by Sandra Weiss.

Plastics add an additional challenge, as there are thousands of chemically distinct varieties (some of them toxic) and they can’t be recycled together. Meanwhile, plastic entering the environment and not cleaned up degrades into polluting micro- and nanoparticles.

Add to this a new report warning that the plastic industry’s “growth trajectory is exponential [with] production expected to double or triple by 2050,” along with a just completed U.N. plastics treaty session that made almost no progress toward limiting manufacture.

All this combines to create a pricey crisis for island nations that urgently need solutions.

“That’s why we need a regional approach towards a circular economy,” Eva Ringhof says. She’s the managing director of Caribe Circular, an initiative co-hosted by the System of Central American Integration (SICA) and the German development agency GIZ.

The program, launched in 202o, is now present in eight SICA member countriesand Mexico, and has four lines of action: Supporting local projects, campaigns and education to raise waste problem awareness; joining with the business sector to design business models for better disposal; and supporting government with management plans and legislation models.

A project to turn the Azua garbage dump into a recycling facility is still on hold with the Dominican Republic state bureaucracy.
A project to turn the Azua garbage dump into a recycling facility is still on hold with the Dominican Republic state bureaucracy. The dump is located next to a nature reserve. Image by Sandra Weiss.

Avoid trashing the land to save the ocean

Reduce, reuse and recycle are the three core principles of circular waste management, notes Ringhof, but “reducing” is key: “We are especially focusing on avoidance,” she says. According to her data, 80% of the waste floating in the Caribbean’s turquoise waters is produced on land and washed to the sea by rivers.

The Caribbean tourism industry is intensely interested in reducing that trash flow using the circular economy as a tool. So Caribe Circular started by working with it. According to Ringhof, 52 large hotels within the eight participating Caribbean countries and Mexico have already reduced up to 30% of their throwaway waste by adopting some simple but effective changes. Many facilities, for example, now avoid single-use plastics by packaging guest lunches in recyclable or reusable containers, or by installing permanent refillable shampoo dispensers to replace individual plastic-packed personal hygiene products.

Another sector advancing rapidly toward sustainability is agriculture. At a recent workshop, regional participants presented ideas for replacing the black plastic bags currently used to hold seedlings. Many biodegradable products (made cheaply from leftover avocado seeds, banana or coconut fiber) can do the same job.

“The change is a bit more difficult when industrial processes are concerned,“ Ringhof notes. These firms often must compete on a regional or global market, so are extremely cost-focused. Plastic is cheaper than many other materials, so market incentives for replacing it are low, except for businesses eager to present a sustainable image to consumers.

That’s why Caribe Circular is working with Caribbean governments to develop laws that will make it more expensive to use plastics, by taxing plastic packaging or holding producers responsible for the end-of-life consequences of their goods, called extended producer responsibility. Such rules could, for example, require a beverage manufacturer to take back its PET plastic bottles to reuse or recycle them, or replace them with eco-friendly materials.

Environmentalists also have hopes that the United Nations treaty on plastic waste, when negotiations resume, will increase pressure on companies to do more.

Single-use plastic was banned in 2022 in the Dominican Republic
Single-use plastic was banned in 2022 in the Dominican Republic, but the ban has not been enforced. Supermarkets like this one in the capital Santo Domingo still sell plastic bags. Image by Sandra Weiss.

‘Trash management … is complex’

However, getting Caribbean trash under control will be an uphill battle, as events in the Dominican Republic illustrate. In 2020, the country’s parliament passed a law on the handling of solid waste and the government started charging a tax on businesses to help pay for a transition to a circular economy.

But the conversion was slow to materialize, especially because with a dozen plastic-manufacturing facilities in the country, there are large-scale interests at stake. The Dominican Republic’s ban on single-use plastic should have come into force in 2022, and at least 20 landfill sites should have been cleaned up by this year, according to the law. Neither happened.

“In 2021, the lobby for single-use plastics achieved, first a postponement, and then the cancellation of the prohibition date,” explains Nelson Bautista, from Accion Verde, an NGO. He expresses disappointment over the lack of political will and doesn’t expect enforcement of the circular economy law any time soon.

Waldys Taveras agrees, and he stands ankle-deep in plastic waste to make his point: “Not one single landfill in the country disposes of waste properly, and recycling facilities only exist where private companies have invested,” he says. Taveras is the former commissioner for environment for Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital, and for the surrounding counties.

He surveys the catastrophic situation at the Azua landfill, about 100 km (62 mi) from Santo Domingo. The unsightly open-air dump sits next to a protected area and overlooks a beautiful bay bordered by white sand. While Taveras talks, some people rummage through the garbage, most of them Haitian migrants separating PET bottles for a businessman who twice a week charters a truck and takes the load to a factory near the capital where it’s turned into plastic pellets for export.

“There is a plan by the European Union and Japan, together with a Spanish company, to reconvert the dump into a sanitary landfill with a recycling plant where these people could work with dignity,” says Taveras, “but the Ministry of Environment just doesn’t move forward.”

The official currently in charge of that project is Indhira de Jesús, the vice minister for environmental management, who tells Mongabay she’s confident the impasse will soon be resolved. “But as the landfill will be next to a protected area, the process is complicated,” she adds.

Questioned about the slow implementation of the country’s circular economy law, she admits the original timeline was overly optimistic. “Trash management does not only involve the government, but also companies and municipalities and implies a change of culture in the citizenry. It is complex.”

Indhira de Jesús
Indhira de Jesús, vice minister of environmental management in the Dominican Republic, admits the government has struggled with the implementation of a circular economy. Image by Sandra Weiss.
Immigrants from Haiti working at a garbage dump in Azua, Dominican Republic, which should have been closed in 2023.
Immigrants from Haiti working at a garbage dump in Azua, Dominican Republic, which was slated to close in 2023. Image by Sandra Weiss.

The regional plastic industry steps in — slowly

Industry isn’t unaware of the trash problem. The influential Association of Industries of the Dominican Republic (AIRD) is now acting to stem the waste problem, in coordination with the initiative by Caribe Circular.

Twenty plastic bottle producers and bottling companies have come together in a project called Nuvi to organize the collection and recycling of PET bottles.

“It was complex first to design the system and then to implement and socialize it,” says Mario Pujols, AIRD’s vice president. The association has set up 100 recycling bins in the capital, and while these have collected some 82 million bottles since 2020, that’s still less than 1% of total sales volume. “There is still a lack of awareness among the population. Much more needs to happen in terms of education,” says Pujols.

The need for education is apparent throughout the Caribbean, where it’s a widespread custom to simply throw garbage over a road embankment or into the nearest river.

That’s why people living beside the Motagua River in Guatemala, a Caribe Circular participant, launched their circular solutions campaign with environmental education. The Ecoaprendiendo program is giving lectures at 200 schools in the river basin. They show kids how to sort garbage for recycling, train teachers, and work with the Ministry of Education to put environmental education in the curriculum.

A recycling point installed in a metro station in the Dominican Republic capital, Santo Domingo.
A recycling point installed in a metro station in the Dominican Republic capital, Santo Domingo. It’s part of the Nuvi recycling system. Image by Sandra Weiss.
A garbage dump with a view of the beach at Azua, Dominican Republic.
A garbage dump with a view of the beach at Azua, Dominican Republic. Image by Sandra Weiss.

Defusing a bilateral waste conflict

The 500-km (300-mi) Motagua River crosses Guatemala, passes near the capital, and flows into the Caribbean — and it’s emblematic of the region’s trash crisis. None of the 96 municipalities through which it flows has a garbage collection system. That’s why more than 60 metric tons of trash per day end up in the Caribbean Sea just from the Motagua. Currents carry the waste to the beaches of neighboring Honduras and threaten its tourism and fishing industries.

The problem was so big that in 2022 it provoked a diplomatic spat, with the Honduran government threatening Guatemala with an international lawsuit. Guatemala responded by placing fences at the mouth of the Motagua River to collect the garbage. But there are frequent breakages and spills. And, of course, microplastics slip through the fence and contaminate the nearby Mesoamerican coral reef, the second largest in the world.

In the past, Guatemalan officials, business leaders and environmentalists blamed each other for the ongoing disaster. Alianza Motagua, an NGO founded in October 2023, wanted to end the blame game and get the bickering parties to cooperate.

So far, it has brought together 56 environmental organizations, business associations, charities, international entities, and public officials from Guatemala and Honduras to take on the Herculean task of reducing and properly disposing of all that trash.

“Our goal is to clean the Motagua River within 10 years. Nobody can do that on their own. We all have to work together,” says spokesperson Suceli Girón.

Banner image: Green Phenix artist Erwin Sprot with one of his creations, a human figure made with beer crown caps. Image by Sandra Weiss.

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Gilbert, L. L. (2016). Waste to energy islands: Is converting waste to energy more feasible then traditional landfills for small islands, like Curaçao? (Master’s thesis, Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, Netherlands). Retrieved from

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