For three years, I’ve been amazed and inspired by the number of residents leading cleanups on St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, and even the oft forgotten historic district of Hassel Island. I was extremely happy to see the Department of Tourism encouraging residents to assist in collecting trash throughout the territory.
In high school, I worked in the Clean and Preen program that VIWMA held at the time. Each summer for three years, classmates and myself collected huge amounts of trash on the roadside. We were often disheartened to see some of the areas we had completely transformed filled with litter in just under a week.
At the time, I blamed people for being lazy and nasty because they chose to throw their trash out of their car window.
My classmates and I even witnessed instances where people would throw trash bags filled with waste along the Donoe Bypass and the connecting Donoe Road above the Home Depot on St. Thomas. As the years passed, I began gaining sympathy for people that littered without considering the broader consequences.
Yes, I said sympathy.
When I moved back home from North Carolina in late 2015, I made the trip with my car. A car that I specifically bought because I knew limited public transportation would make having my own set of wheels a necessity. That same year, the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority announced that the Smith Bay bin site servicing residents in the area would be closed to accommodate the construction of the Margaritaville Vacation Club.
Before that, another trash bin had been recently shuttered near the bottom of Cassi Hill leading into Smith Bay. For weeks, residents continued to throw trash on the roadside where the bins were previously located. This continued until signs and a physical barrier were placed at the site and enforcement was ramped up.
When I moved into my apartment in 2016, there weren’t any trash collection services in my area, which meant the closest trash bins near me were located in the Tutu High Rise apartments, which had signs warning that the trash bins were only for tenants and violators would be fined if caught. That was also the closest location for Smith Bay residents, who lost their last trash collection site in 2015. I once lived near an elderly lady who lived alone and relied on her son to remove her trash every few days on St. Thomas. My roommate would also help on some days. She had a car but only drove it to church on Sundays and to check her mailbox if she was expecting mail.
Like many, I found it difficult to find a nearby trash bin that was open to the public. I lived near Cassi Hill at the time and the closest trash bins to me were the bins on Raphune Hill, trash bins in the Bovoni area and the cleanest trash receptacle located right outside the Mahogany Run Golf Course and condominiums.
Since 2015, I’ve had three apartments on St. Thomas. And each of those apartments required me to travel with my household trash to remote bin sites several times a week. In each of those places, which were home to hundreds of residents without cars or access to reliable transportation, there was a trash epidemic that plagued the roadside.
Localities such as Annas Retreat, Wintberg, Bordeaux and even downtown Charlotte Amalie experience similar problems.
For littering to stop in the U.S. Virgin Islands, every resident would need unimpeded access to trash collection services and a government committed to locating funds and federal programs to maintain each island’s specific waste needs.
When I first moved back home, my car was brand new and I wasn’t too worried about it giving me issues for a few years. With my apartment wedged between Smith Bay and Annas Retreat, I noticed my neighbors and others living in the area without cars walking to work with trash bags in their hands.
Many walked to the safari route and would board with a bag of trash – I was never sure where the bag’s final destination would be. I would also see people who lived in more remote areas, especially on hilltops, heading down the road on foot with trash bags. The bags were usually tiny but some residents walked with large bags and even empty boxes.
I still see it today. Flashing back to my time working for Clean and Preen, it made sense that my classmates found trash bags in remote areas. People without cars, and limited or zero access to trash collections services also needed a place to put their trash – and you can guess where it usually ended up.
I’m afraid that even if we facilitated 1,000 cleanups throughout the territory over the next five years, it won’t make a dent in curbing littering if trash collection initiatives aren’t expanded to meet the growing demand. I believe residents intimately know that littering negatively impacts the environment. However, I don’t believe that residents are aware of how harmful microplastics can be to local fish, birds, coral reefs and trees. Re-educating the public about the consequences of littering and ways to curb it are a great start.
Reshaping how we treat our environment and the way we dispose of waste on our small islands can improve public health and dramatically improve the territory’s tourism product as more American tourists seek out eco-friendly destinations.
I don’t have a solution for the territory’s waste crisis, nor am I criticizing those responsible for keeping our islands clean. What I do have is sympathy for the individuals who have limited access to collection sites and often make the lax choice of abandoning their trash on our roadsides.
Reshaping how we criticize and approach people who litter can help us understand how the territory’s waste crisis that has existed for more than 30 years can be improved.