Fixing our Garbage Problem: Executive Mandate Urgently Needed

I listened in horror as the caller to the popular day-time radio talk show described his passenger’s attitude towards litter. “He finished eating his KFC in my taxi and then just threw the bag, cup and box with bones out the window of the moving vehicle. I told him that he shouldn’t have done that, that he could have just left it in the car, that I would have disposed of it when next I stopped. He got vexed with me. Asked me wha mi think garbage truck and garbage man di deh fah…” The same taxi man told the talk show host that he ferries visitors to the island around Montego Bay and he is repeatedly asked about the amount of visible garbage in the second city. The visitors are appalled, quizzical and disdainful all at the same time. “Is there some sort of problem?” they ask in wonderment.

Garbage in gully. Photo courtesy the Gleaner
We have a garbage problem. My family and I have perfected the art of the road-trip and we can, at a moment’s notice, head north, south, east or west in Jamaica, and we do. Often. We do not have to go three feet off the beaten track to be confronted with garbage: plastic bags, bottles and containers. Have you seen Downtown Kingston after a shower of rain? Remember the flooding due to clogged drains in Montego Bay a few weeks ago after thirty minutes of rain? Just look down into every single gully in Kingston that you drive past and over: garbage and more garbage. No TVJ nightly newscast is complete without the obligatory “raw sewage overflowing” story, the overflow the result of drains clogged with solid waste.

Garbage outside a school. Photo courtesy the Jamaica Observer
How Come?

The Broken Windows Theory
In 1982, Wilson and Kelling posited the Broken Window theory in an attempt to link serious crime to seemingly less innocuous incidents of disorder like vandalism and littering. Even though their theory has its fair share of criticism as far as diagnosing and treating serious crime, at its simplest level, the theory in part explains why dirty communities remain this way. They observed: “…consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants…” Simply put, allowing the first hint of disorder to go unchecked is a welcome mat for more of the same. Garbage attracts garbage. And after a while it’s as if we don’t see it. The garbage around us has simply become part of the landscape, the proverbial dead body in the living room, which was appalling at first sight, but as the inhabitants started to manoeuvre around it and as they got used to the sight of it, the dead body became just another fixture in the room.
Plastic bottles in gully heading out to sea. Photo from
Studies Show…

The Jamaica Environmental Trust (JET) has bravely attempted to tackle Jamaica’s garbage problem with their “Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica” campaign. Some young talented animator did the eye catching visuals to the zippy tune that admonishes us accordingly. Nice. But meaningless in the face of the enormous problem we face. You see, the garbage that we co-exist with, is not simply the result of that passenger in the taxi flinging his waste through the car window.  JET recently released the results of a study done to look at the garbage issues and the South Gully in Montego Bay. While the scope of the study was limited to the South Gully, the findings and recommendations have wider application for the island.
Garbage is habitually dumped in our gullies. No one readily admits to dumping, but the evidence is clear. In the face of erratic, unpredictable and in some cases non-existent garbage collection, what do you think will really happen? Informal settlements generate waste too. To include them on a garbage collection schedule may legitimise them, giving rise to a whole new set of problems. Many public skips where people could deposit their garbage in a central place for pickup have been removed. People used to burn their garbage there, destroying the skips, and infrequent collection saw the skips morphing into mini dumpsites, a haven for rodents and other pests.  

We already know how to fix it
The South Gully Research Project made recommendations, recommendations that have been proffered time and again. Here they are, modified for general application:
1.       Establishment of a regular cleaning schedule for gullies which is published in newspapers and online.
2.       Increased frequency of garbage collection
3.       Establishment of a well-publicized garbage collection schedule and map of collection routes
4.       Roll out of a significant quantity of bins along established garbage collection routes. Skips might be appropriate in some places (at the entrance to informal settlements for example) but it should be recognized that they take much longer to clear. Lightweight, plastic bins, with holes punched in the sides and bottom to discourage theft, are most effective in urban areas where frequent garbage collection takes place. Private sector support should be sought to finance the bins.
5.       Enforcement of anti-dumping laws should be dramatically ramped up island wide. This enforcement should be accompanied by appropriate publicity, including messaging targeted at business operators promoting good solid waste management practices.
6.       Revision of the NSWMA act to include specific regulations for solid waste management by commercial and industrial operations; increase fines and impose harsher penalties for non-compliance. Revisions should be accompanied by increased enforcement effort.

But will that do it?
I’ve itemized the recommendations above with a heavy heart. There is a perspective that leadership in Jamaica has lost the art of implementation and has become preoccupied with speeches and box-ticking. It further posits that those in positions of influence and power have managed to insulate themselves from certain Jamaican realities and therefore expend nothing on fixing those ills besetting others; think private schools, private education, private security, gated communities, vehicles that shuttle them from A to B, high off the ground in air-conditioned insularity. They vacation in exclusive locations, out of the line of sight of road side dump sites, and in all-inclusive, created experiences, totally separate from the speak-easy that exists beside a pile of garbage uncollected in two weeks. Out of sight, most definitely out of mind.

And so priorities are set based on a particular skewed perspective and outlook by the powerful and wealthy. And those who see and know and feel The Other Side of Things, in their quest for the Great House quickly adopt the priorities of those who are where they want to be, eschewing the urgent and real needs of our present context.

Tackle the issue at the Community Level

So is grass roots activism and action the answer to get things moving? Perhaps this is one of the first steps towards making our present system of governance redundant and shifting the current paradigm towards one that is more proactive and relevant to us.
Imagine this happening at the Community level:

1. Education campaigns about improper garbage disposal. Get a local company to sponsor a poster competition in the community schools. Tell them to include actual pictures of what is wrong in their community.

2. Again get a local company to sponsor the printing of dozens of the winning poster and then commission local groups like the 4H Club, Scouts, church youth group to strategically, and with permission place these posters in central areas.

3. Set a small goal of creating a garbage free zone in a public area enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Make noise about it. Use social media to spread the news of this success story. Replicate this in another area.

4. Get the Councillor and MP on board: THEY have to pressure NSWMA to cart the garbage away regularly and reliably. KEEP UP THE PRESSURE! Use social media to shame and congratulate. Because make no mistake, there are those who make every effort to bag and discard their garbage properly, but their best efforts are thwarted by the non-collection of their garbage! There’s no reliable schedule of collection and public skips seem to be a thing of the past.

The Case for an Executive Mandate
I fear though that the general recommendations extrapolated from JET’s South Gully Research Project and my own offerings about a revolution at the local level are an insufficient response to the enormity of the garbage problem we face. We have already established that solutions exist. It is not as if we do not know what to do. So what next then?
All the literature on change management in organisations underscore the importance of sponsorship from the executive level when major change is required. The more radical and far reaching the change, the more critical it is for all stakeholders to know that it is supported by The Leader. This makes it safe for them to step out of their comfort zone. This offers some sort of guarantee that the needed resources will be allocated appropriately in support of the desired change.
In the 1960’s, Lee Kwan Yew, then president of Singapore, determined to distinguish Singapore from other Third world countries, decided that he would make it clean and green. He easily saw the link between a clean country, a desirable business and tourism destination and the morale of the citizens. Admittedly, the attitudes of the people proved the hardest to tackle. He prioritized law enforcement with respect to littering and greening of the city. New standards for farming and operating within the city were enacted. In his own words, Lee Kwan Yew stated that “perseverance and stamina were needed to fight old habits.” But he did it. Today, Singapore and its people reap the rewards of vision and stellar leadership in this regard.  
Improperly disposed of garbage leads to breeding sites for mosquitoes and rats. Clogged drainage causes millions of dollars in damage resulting from flooding whenever it rains. The government of Jamaica is currently spending millions of dollars treating and monitoring pregnant women testing positive for ZikV and treating patients diagnosed with Guillaine-Barre Syndrome associated with ZikV infections. Lost productivity due to ChickV outbreak last year was likely in the millions of dollars. As the country gets dirtier and dirtier, visitors will opt for cleaner, safer more beautiful destinations. How will we counter the inevitable bad press that will result from filthy, unkempt, unsafe and unsanitary tourist destinations? Spend more money on PR, I suppose and huge sums on mass gully scrapings to take shame out of our eyes.

The bottom line: we cannot afford NOT to allocate resources to implement the recommendations suggested. This will only happen with a clear mandate from the Prime Minister and his tangible, visible support. Take on this challenge of making Jamaica clean, Mr. Holness. Make a clean Jamaica your lasting legacy.

Dear PM: I know that your overarching mandate is economic growth…a worthy ideal to be sure. Law and order cannot flourish in garbage. And without law and order, what happens to any and all economic growth initiatives? I put it to you that your direct leadership in tackling our garbage problem is absolutely critical at this point in our development… perhaps more critical than anything you are spearheading right now.  Getting to a cleaner Jamaica is low hanging fruit that we can ill afford not to pick.

Garbage washed ashore along the Palisadoes strip. Photo courtesy the Gleaner.

The Broken Windows Theory & Policing in Jamaica: “To protect, Serve and Reassure…those who matter”

Once upon time, in a small, quiet community in West Rural St. Andrew, a homeowner came from work one evening confronted by the sight of an old white station waggon on blocks, on the sidewalk almost opposite his front gate. It was a jarring sight: this old, disabled car, an ugly blemish on the green, rustic landscape. Days passed, each day seeing another part of the car missing. One day it had only one door instead of two. The next day, the bonnet was gone. On yet another day, the dashboard had been taken. The car was being scrapped right on the sidewalk, in the middle of this small, quiet community.
The homeowner typically left for work by 7am and returned home after 7pm. He relied on his housekeeper to inform him of the activity around the (not so) abandoned car. She reported that the car’s owner had some connection to the house opposite his…he helped to build it, he claimed, and it was actually his mother’s property, now rented out. He promised that the car would be moved, that he just needed a little more time.
After six weeks of facing this almost shell of a car wreck on blocks, in front of his gate, the homeowner reported the matter to the local police. He reasoned that sufficient time had elapsed and he preferred not to get into an argument with someone who appeared to be comfortable with scrapping a car piece by piece on the sidewalk over an extended period of time. Furthermore, any opportunity to interact with the scrapper would demand a change to his own schedule, awaiting Mr. Scrapper’s attendance at the wreck. This matter of a scrapped car, perched on blocks on the sidewalk, was most certainly an issue of law and order, easily dealt with by the police, he reasoned.
He was in for a rude awakening. 
Ten weeks elapsed, and the shell of the car was still on the sidewalk opposite his gate. One morning, Mr. Homeowner’s wife was leaving for work and she saw two men “working” on the car. She stopped and attempted to pleasantly engage the men, seeking to elicit some sort of timeline and commitment for disposing of the wreck. She was greeted with hostility from one of the men who claimed ownership of the wreck. He angrily sought to justify the presence of the wreck on “his sidewalk” since the sidewalk adjoined “his mother’s house, the house weh him broad out him back fi help har build!” He went on to rant about the homeowner going to the police instead of trying to find him first, and declared “ah nuh so we fi live!”.  Mrs. Homeowner, a bit intimidated, but resolute, politely ended the discussion with: “Anyway, it really doesn’t belong here. Please seek to get it removed sooner rather than later.”
Twelve weeks elapsed, and the wreck was still on the sidewalk. By this time, it was a mere chassis. Note that at the end of 6 weeks having not heard from the police or seeing any resolution, Mr. Homeowner stepped up inquiries of the local police. He made a total of 7 visits to the police station, spoke with a superintendent of police on the matter and went on to report said issue to a senior superintendent of police. In discussions with the police, Mr. Homeowner confirmed that the property was not stolen, and the person responsible was known to the police and was being ‘given time’ to remove the item and clean the mess. Mr. Homeowner remains adamant that the presence of this shell and garbage is a public health and security risk.

In reviewing this story and how it might play out, the “Broken Windows Theory” immediately came to mind. The Broken Windows Theory, posited by Wilson and Kelling in 1982, seeks to make a link between disorder and more serious crime. The theory was born out of the following observations and reasoning: a building with a few broken windows is likely to have other windows broken by vandals eventually, said vandals going on to eventually break in and even become squatters. Consider also a clean sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. This leads to more litter. And even more litter as people conclude that this is an unpoliced situation where anything can and does go.
Wilson and Kelling maintain that disorder, while not directly linked to more serious crime, certainly leads to increased fear and withdrawal from residents, which creates a context for more serious crime to flourish. Residents will grow cynical as to the role and efficacy of the police, and fail to report violations they see or experience. Persons of mal-intent will quickly identify this context as one where they can do as they like and more than likely get away with it.
That the actions of the man scrapping this car on the sidewalk are against the law is beyond debate. His actions constitute a breach of section 45 & 46 of the National Solid Waste Management Act.
Section 45 definitively states that every person who disposes of solid waste in any area or in any manner not approved by the Authority…commits an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction before a Resident Magistrate to a fine not exceeding one million dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding nine months or to both such fine and imprisonment
Section 46 continues: (1) A person commits an offence if he- (a) throws, drops or otherwise deposits and leaves any litter in any public place; or (b) erects, displays (whether by writing, marking or otherwise), deposits or affixes anything in a public place or on any building, wall, fence or structure abutting or adjoining a public place, in such circumstances as to cause, contribute to or tend to the defacement of that place, building wall, fence or structure, as the case may be, and shall be liable to a penalty under section 53.
The law continues to guide law enforcers as to their response to breeches of this act in Section 53: Where an authorized officer finds a person on any occasion and has reason to believe that on that occasion that person is committing or has committed an offence to which this section applies, he may serve that person with the prescribed notice in writing offering the discharge of any liability to conviction of that offence by payment of a fixed penalty under this section…
To provide even more clarity, here are definitions under the law that remove all doubt as to the legality of the scrapping and abandoning of the car on the sidewalk:
“authorized officer”: any member of the Jamaica Constabulary Force
“litter”: solid waste in any public place and includes any refuse, rubbish, bottles, glass, debris, dirt, rubble, ballast, stones, noxious or contained substances or waste matter or any other matter likely to deface, make untidy, obstruct or cause a nuisance in a public place
“public place”:  includes every public highway, street, road, square, court, alley, lane, bridle way, footway, parade, wharf, jetty, quay, bridge, sidewalk, verge;
After twelve weeks and numerous reports, Mr. Homeowner has reasonably concluded that the police have failed to uphold the law in this situation. The police have been unresponsive. The chassis remains on the sidewalk. Mr. Scrapper remains free. The police, by refusing to act decisively and uphold the law where this scrapped car is concerned, have now created a context that exposes this community to the possibility of even more serious crime.
Indeed, the police have spoken to the offender. This is evidenced by Mr. Scrapper’s anger when speaking to Mrs. Homeowner. One gets the feeling that the police have framed their discussion with this known offender from the point of view of the homeowner: “Mr. So and So wants you to move that car from in front of his home” rather than framing the offence from the point of view of the law! Had the police engaged him by pointing out the offence as it is framed in law, they could have prevented the tension that exists because Mr. Scrapper feels that Mr. Homeowner “a give him a fight.” There are too many examples in Jamaica of lives being lost as a result of interactions borne out of unchecked, escalating tensions between parties; disorder giving rise to so called serious crime.
If Mr. Homeowner sees suspicious activity in a nearby residence, who could blame him if he opts not to report it to the police? He can reasonably conclude after all, that the police are selective in how they go about serving, reassuring and protecting. More serious crime can potentially move in to this community now in the face of decreased levels of informal social control.
The Broken Windows Theory and policing are not without criticism. There are studies showing that zero tolerance has led to uneven prosecution in some areas, minorities being targeted and punished for very minor infractions at a higher rate than their white counterparts in the USA for example.
It would suit the police and political directorate here in Jamaica to consider this approach to crime fighting, however.  We have seen a general decline in law and order: loud music way into the night, filthy cities and communities, deliberate ignoring of zoning laws in residential neighbourhoods seeing a rise in commercial activity, savoury and otherwise (think massage parlours) increased road fatalities from reckless driving and on and on. What have we to lose from an approach that treats with such offences as prescribed by the law? The police appear to be selective in which laws they opt to enforce and how they enforce them. This surely is not their right!
After three months, the police still have an opportunity to do the right thing and re-establish a context of law and order in that West Rural St. Andrew community where a scrapped chassis remains a blemish, health risk and security risk, and an obvious affront to the laws of the land. They must immediately act as the law demands, making it clear that the offender’s actions go beyond upsetting Mr. Homeowner, that they are in clear contravention of the law. They still have an opportunity to act and in so doing, dissuade potential lawbreakers seeing a slow decline in standards in the community from adding to the disorder. They still have an opportunity prevent and possibly reverse the disenchantment and resentment that Mr. Homeowner and his family may feel, maintaining these critical allies, the citizens, without whom crime fighting can never work.
Selective enforcement of the law strips the police of legitimacy, rendering their efforts at crime fighting null and void.

Were this another community, say Kingston 8, or were the sidewalk in front of the Prime Minister’s residence or in front of Mr. Captain of Industry’sor indeed in front of the Commissioner of Police’s residence, would the police response to an abandoned chassis be the same as it has been in this West Rural St. Andrew community?  On what basis does the police decide which laws to enforce and when? “To Serve, Protect and Reassure” is the stated motto of the Jamaica police. Their lack of responsiveness to an action that is in direct contravention of the law of the land suggests that their motto would more accurately read: “To serve, protect and reassure those who matter…”