The First Step in Managing Plastic Waste Is Measuring It – Here’s How We Did It for One Caribbean Country

Countries around the world throw away millions of tons of plastic trash every year. Finding ways to manage plastic waste is daunting even for wealthy nations, but for smaller and less-developed countries it can be overwhelming.

We recently carried out a study for the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago that applied economic principles to its plastics management challenge. Some of what we did can be used anywhere.

Our backgrounds are in business management and sustainability. Although Trinidad and Tobago is a tiny country whose economy is based on beach tourism and the petroleum industry, and we had relatively little data on plastic production, use and disposal available, we see this as a useful case study. Trinidad and Tobago is not the only place where data is limited or expensive.

Because Trinidad and Tobago’s population is just 1.2 million, we were able to look at its complete economy. It belongs to Caricom, the Caribbean Community, a regional organization that includes 16 million people, giving it access to larger markets. And it struggles with the same problems many large countries face: lack of landfill space. The disposal problem is urgent.

Plastic Arrives as Packaging

The first step to solving any problem is to measure it. This is often challenging for plastics, due to lack of data on where they come from and end up. A major part of our analysis was repurposing trade statistics to make up for limited data.

Material flow analysis helps quantify the flow of products and wastes. This process was developed in the late 1990s by industrial ecologists for waste management. They have applied it to track materials like metals and products like computers at national and international scales.

The analysis combines different kinds of data. It tracks imported or newly manufactured products entering economies to their use and reuse, including recycling, export or disposal in landfills. Academics and government agencies conduct material flow analysis to inform environmental management.

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