Bringing Zero Waste to Tobago
My trip to Tobago was like any journey to a lush tropical paradise - a long plane ride to another planet. First it is the hot moist air that clamps around your whole being - then it is the brilliant green-blue world that fills your vision - and then the adventure begins. I came to reconnect with Ms. Essie Parks, the Community Solutions leader that spent four months with my organization, Eco-Cycle Inc., in Boulder, Colorado. Eco-Cycle is the nation’s largest nonprofit Zero Waste organization, and Essie had come to us to learn how to improve the waste management system on her home island of Tobago in the Caribbean. Essie had returned home with her “plan” in hand, and proceeded to convince the local government, whom she worked for, to support her vision. I came for two weeks to help her sell it to local stakeholders and officials in the Tobago House of Assembly.
The first week flew by in meetings at the local landfill and public presentations. The landfill is like most in the Caribbean – it’s an old dump that is hidden back in a rainforest valley, it was never properly engineered, and from what I could see (and was told) it is leaking toxic liquids into the nearby creek that then travels a half mile to the ocean. The Tobago landfill is the only facility for waste management on the island – there is no recycling or composting infrastructure right now. The good news is that the landfill will be “full” in about five years, so something has to change. I recommended building a new, modern landfill and immediately building both recycling and composting facilities to achieve a 50% island recycling rate by the year 2020, a goal set by the national government.
I am amazed at how successful the Community Solutions experience has been for both Eco-Cycle and for Ms. Parks. And I use the word “amazed” because I am old enough now and experienced enough with government projects like this to know that they can, at times, require a significant amount of work with little gained in return. In fact, when we were first contacted, my staff and I had a couple of long discussions about how busy we were and how hesitant we were to participate. Fortunately for us, we had the perfect project for Essie to work on; and so we signed up.
Essie was the key to success, however. She is a bright, hard-working, open learner – and together we hit the ground running and never stopped. Her time in Boulder was beneficial to us both because she had real world immediate needs related to how our theory and vision was turned into action. Her input on helped us greatly in building a training program focused on creating pragmatic deliverables. Thanks to Essie, my trip to Tobago was just as beneficial. It was well organized and productive, and somewhat to my surprise we accomplished higher-level results than I thought possible in such a short time. Essie and Eco-Cycle have made a good team twice now, and I expect we’ll be in each other’s future again.
I’m now off of Essie’s planet, returned to my high, dry desert climate in Colorado. As always, international travel-with-purpose never fails to open new doors of perception related to my work of bringing the Zero Waste Revolution to a global audience. From time spent speaking about Zero Waste with everyone from blue collar workers to government officials in Tobago, I have gained some new ideas on this trip about framing the issues, technology positioning, NGO roles and cyberspace utilization. I don’t want to be greedy, but I hope I get to do it again, and Eco-Cycle has already agreed to take another Community Solutions leader from Nepal.
Eric Lombardi is the Executive Director of Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado. He recently traveled to Tobago to work with Essie Parks, with whom he collaborated during her four-month stay as a Community Solutions fellow. Community Solutions is a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State and is implemented by IREX.