“Re-thinking” Paradise

“Re-thinking” Paradise

by Jeff McCord

When one spends most of their time in “paradise” (or, rather, the U.S. Virgin Islands), you tend to vacation on the North American continent. And, going to the mainland after nearly a year “on island,” one is impressed by things many continentals now take for granted. The growing efficiencies and prevalence of recycling is one example.

In the state of New York, for instance, plastic and glass bottles can be recycled in easy to use machines stationed at most supermarkets. The deposit one pays when purchasing beverages is returned at the point of purchase and can add up. This provides obvious incentives for enterprising retirees and other folks to make the effort to search-out cans and bottles along road sides and elsewhere to feed into the machines.

At a Rhinebeck, NY, supermarket recycling machine a man, carrying big garbage bags full of bottles and cans, explained that people can make thousands of dollars picking them up and turning them in.

In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, consumers routinely separate and place everything of value — plastics, glass, aluminum, paper products — into separately colored bags. On trash pick-up days, every driveway has a neatly piled array of bags that can easily be picked up and sorted at transfer stations.

IMG_0359On the island of St. John, the environmental imperative of recycling is becoming clear to more and more people.   But, our recycled materials must be shipped by boat elsewhere, imposing economic costs — not to mention the carbon footprint of diesel fuel — that make the process cumbersome.

For this reason, the Virgin Island focus has been on reducing the waste stream and recycling whatever products make sense given our location. For several years, the Island Green Builders Association has donated excess building supplies — including wood, doors, toilets, nails, screws, tools and other products — to a central depot where consumers and other builders can obtain great products at a fraction of their usual costs.

The Island Green Builders Association has recently expanded and morphed into the broader eco-nonprofit Island Green Living Association (ICLA). In a recent interview with St. John Source, the IGLA’s new president Harith Wickrema said Virgin Islanders need to add “Rethink” as the fourth R in the “old sustainability mantra of recycle, reduce, reuse.”

Like many first-time visitors, Mr. Wickrema — a former professor at the Temple University School of Tourism and Hospitality Management — immediately fell in love with St. John when he traveled there on business. He then conceived Eco Serendib Villa and Spa, an eco-luxury retreat on St. John where he now makes his home. For each night that the villa is rented, a donation is made to Friends of Virgin Islands National Park and IGLA for restoration and recycling efforts on St. John.

With generous support from Mr. Wickrema and other donors, those recycling efforts now include an aluminum can crushing machine that in one minute can crush 600 cans into a 12 inch by 12 inch by 6 inch bale. Volunteers assist in stacking the bales onto pallets that can be shipped off-island where aluminum prices make recycling more feasible.

The IGLA is now working with shipping companies to seek donated space on container vessels that often return from the Virgin Islands to their ports of embarkation with empty containers. The group is also working with the non-profit St. John Community Foundation to fund, purchase and install solar panels to power the can crusher currently runs on a diesel engine.

IMG_0360Residents of the Virgin Islands have long practiced the habit of placing reusable “trash” outside dumpsters for others to use. Servisable beach chairs, clothing, furniture, books and other items are routinely found alongside dumpsters throughout the islands. And, they disappear rapidly — sometimes to be fixed-up as needed and re-sold by enterprising “second hand” store owners or in island garage sales.

During the high season winter months when tourists flock to our islands, this informal system of recycling can get competitive on Saturdays — the visitor “turn over day.” On those days, thoughtful tourists who have bought beach chairs and toys and cannot take them back on planes will leave the virtually brand new prized items by the dumpsters. Quick thinking and acting locals get the pick of their leavings.

In a somewhat bohemian and very laid back community on St. John’s lesser developed East End, the dumpsters are jokingly called Coral Bay’s K-mart.

Recycling is just part of the solution, though. Progress is being made to reduce the waste stream before recycling becomes necessary.

One step toward achieving that goal was the installation at the Virgin Islands National Park Visitors Center of St. John’s first water station earlier this year. Previously, the Visitors Center had sold tens of thousands of plastic bottles of water to hot, thirsty visitors. Now, through a joint venture of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park and the National Park Service, a water station linked to the Cruz Bay water system (providing desalinated water) dispenses cool and filtered water to all who want it. Next to the station, inexpensive reusable water bottles are sold.

This water station “demonstration project” has attracted the interest of hotel and villa managers who often provide bottle water to guests. Why not provide water stations and inexpensive reusable bottles instead?

Supermarkets are also getting into the swing of waste reduction by encouraging customers to bring their own shopping bags. Starfish Market, for example, does not have plastic bags. And, as I write this, the Virgin Islands legislature is moving a bill that restricts the use of plastic bags in retail throughout the Territory. The Governor is expected to sign this legislation because it was his idea.

In short, residents of paradise are catching-up with their continental neighbors. Environmental re-thinking is taking place, though at a more laid-back pace.

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