Every month a supply ship arrives at St Helena (now the MV Helena, previously the RMS St Helena), delivering shipping containers full of supplies. In them, along with the goods themselves, is the huge amount of glass, plastic, metal and cardboard packaging that contains the goods. Such packaging is not taken away again and has to be dealt with in other ways.

The huge global challenge in dealing with the waste humans produce is well documented (e.g. this article making specific reference to St Helena). These challenges are magnified on small islands, and it’s been fascinating, to be immersed in this issue, in the context of both St Helena and Ascension islands.

In January 2018, just after arriving on St Helena, I attended the island’s first environmental conference, where I met Mike Durnford, who has been responsible for all Waste Management Services on St Helena since 2015. Mike gave a small group of us a very insightful tour of the Horse Point Landfill Site and Public Recycling Facility, which receives c.700 tonnes of waste annually (c.70% of all the island waste). I’ve subsequently enjoyed engaging with Mike and his team, who are tremendously supportive of the National Trust in our organising of beach cleans on the island.

The Horse Point site has been developed greatly over recent years, and there’s also been a concerted effort by Mike’s team to ‘clean-up’ landscapes that had for a long time been blighted by bulky wastes (e.g. old vehicles), and deliver public engagement campaigns to reduce waste and increase island recycling. Currently c.10% of used glass is collected, crushed and then used in construction as part of concrete, some cans are collected, and a small fraction of waste cardboard is re-used via a cottage industry through SHAPE.

The public also dump their bulky rubbish at the waste site in a separate area, which is regarded by many as the island’s free supermarket! I’ve been a few times now to scrabble around in the household junk to find car tyres and old containers for growing plants in at home, and also rescued an old table that is now on the patio. There are almost always others at the tip looking for useful stuff, it’s quite enjoyable being a skip rat, especially on a tiny island where purchasing things can be difficult!

In July/August I spent three weeks on Ascension Island, to support the roll out of the Ascension Island Government’s (AIG) new waste management strategy. Lovely island, great work and it was interesting to contrast their approach to that on St Helena.

For years, Ascension household waste has been collected, taken to their waste site, tipped out and then (with the help of a box of fire lighters) burnt in an open heap. The residue of the burnt waste (predominantly steel and aluminium cans, and glass bottles) is then landfilled. The open burning removes most of the paper, cardboard, food waste and plastics, which equates to c.90% of the total waste volume and prevents any subsequent build-up of methane gas as the organic material decomposes. Open burning is far from ideal – it’s unsightly, inefficient (as all the combustible material is not burnt) and extremely ‘dirty’, with clouds of black smoke containing noxious gases from the large amount of plastics. You can see the black stain across the landscape on Google Earth.

Something needed to change on Ascension, and Mike Haworth was appointed as Waste manager, as part of a Darwin Project, to drive this change (NB: seemingly you need to be called Mike to manage waste in the South Atlantic!). Over the last two years Mike has worked closely with WRAP and others to produce a new waste management plan for the island. I think this will revolutionise their waste management, through the procurement of a high temperature incinerator, expanding the glass collection and establishing a drink can collection scheme.

The Blue Marine Foundation have been supporting work on Ascension for some time and have funded a diverse range of conservation and environmental projects there, including purchasing iPads for the island’s school and interpretation panels for the Green Mountain National Park. Mike Haworth had asked Blue Marine for assistance to roll out the community engagement for the new waste strategy, and I was offered the chance to go to Ascension to support Mike’s work.

A key part of my role was to prepare and co-deliver workshops and presentations with different groups of people and workforces on island. Interestingly, you can only live on Ascension if you work there (or are the close family of somebody working there) and this meant that through the island’s major employers it’s possible to reach a large percentage of the c.800 people on island. The seven sessions went well, although the one for the RAF and Interserve staff almost didn’t happen, as the RAF digital security wouldn’t allow us to plug in a USB or connect my lap-top – however we found an acceptable solution (our own projector in the car!). Our headline behaviour change message at all theses sessions was a simple one; “please put glass bottles and jars in a red bin and drink cans in a blue bin”.

It’s been an eye opener for me, coming from the UK where recycling systems are now the cultural norm, to experiencing at close quarters two islands where they aren’t. It costs money to set-up and manage recycling, and it’s (very) expensive to ship anything on/off the two islands (c.£5k to get a 20’ shipping container one way) so the recycled materials need to be either; a) usable on island; or b) of a value great enough to cover the shipping. From what I understand, it appears that for both Ascension and St Helena the crushing of glass to use in concrete, and the collecting, crushing, baling and shipping of aluminium cans for recycle elsewhere offer such potential.

Aluminium drink cans are worth c.£1000/tonne (a beer can weighs 20g, so is worth 2p when baled. 50,000 cans in a tonne – Mike and I worked this out one evening in his kitchen in-between games of darts!) and you can apparently load 17 tonnes into a shipping container. So, if it costs £5k to get the container to the UK, that gives c.£12K profit on the shipment, which would more than cover the collection and crushing. It might take some time to fill up a container with c.850,000 crushed cans, but it appears to be worth doing and, importantly, it keeps them from being land-filled.

The key financial benefit of crushing glass and adding it as part of the mix for concrete (i.e. to replace some of the sand and gravel), is that it costs £300/tonne to ship aggregates to the island, before you pay for the aggregate itself. There are proven concrete mixes in use globally, where typically c.25% of the mix is recycled, crushed glass. Such concrete would be usable on both islands for making footpaths, bollards, concrete blocks, horticultural planters and even public recreation furniture. Again, also keeping the bottles and jars out of land-fill. Our ambition at the St Helena National Trust is to build some showcase structures out of glass concrete to demonstrate it’s worth and hopefully drive the demand.

The big unsolved challenge for small islands lies with their plastic waste, as the value of recycled plastic is so low that you can’t cover the costs of shipping it off the islands (you’d have to pay to get rid of it). Ascension are therefore currently planning to continue burning all plastic waste (but in a far, far cleaner way in their new incinerator) and the plastic on St Helena is land-filled. We are, however, aiming to establish some recycling and re-use of plastics on island.

The St Helena National Trust have instigated initiatives to clean up the plastic waste on the island’s beaches (and it was great to join a beach clean with the AIG Conservation team while there), but clean-ups don’t solve the problem. So, we’ve partnered with the St Helena Government Waste Team, the government Marine Section and SHAPE, and together we have secured £72K of funding from the UK Government (Defra) with the aim of reducing marine plastics. An important part of the project is collecting, recycling and reusing some of the island’s plastic waste. Our plan is to construct machines designed by Precious Plastics to shred and melt the collected plastics and then recycle this into useful items for use on island. Importantly, we firstly need to fully understand the different types of plastic we collect and if/how they can be used.

Last month myself and Mike from Ascension had a Skype conversation with Fiona Llewellyn and Rachel Jones from the Zoological Society London (ZSL), who are looking to develop a similar plastic reduction and recycling project on the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

I’m not a waste expert by any degree, but you don’t need to be an expert to see that the trash made by people is a massive environmental and conservation linked issue, particularly on small islands. I’m inspired by the examples of positive change being driven on individual islands, but it would fantastic to see waste management ideas shared even more and initiatives implemented across all small islands, including the UK Overseas Territories (UKOT) of Ascension, St Helena, and BIOT. Perhaps an ‘international small island waste management tool kit’ could be developed? Perhaps the ships travelling in the South Atlantic between the UKOTS of Ascension, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Falklands could collate and transport waste for recycling? Food for thought.

The shared vision of many is for ‘sustainable islands, where all waste generated is reduced, reused or recycled, generating a circular economy’. Great vision and perhaps it won’t be too long in the future when better waste management is no longer an option, but mandatory, in the same way health and safety at work is now.

In the meantime, I’ll keep collecting glass and cans at home and I’m looking forward to seeing more glass concrete being used on St Helena (and hopefully Ascension), baled aluminium cans being sold, and the creation of some recycled plastic products, through our joint Defra project, that can hopefully serve a real function on the island.

#BackTheBlueBelt @MorrisLeigh


3 thoughts on “Island Trash

  1. Thanks for this. As someone packing up food goods for arrival on the island, which would be preferable – glass or plastic?


    1. If you have a choice, I’d say glass – there is some glass recycling here with the glass being crushed and used as part of virgin aggregate in concrete. Some plastic recycling just starting, but early days…


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