Treading Through the Trash: Haiti's Garbage Problem Isn't Wrecking Just the Environment

11/20/2014 03:15 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Imagine taking an hour-long boat ride off the coast of a beach in the Caribbean, sun shining, perfect breeze blowing. You are getting ready to go scuba dive, and once the boat arrives to the first dive spot, you ensure all your equipment is on properly, check your regulator, and get ready for an exciting dive. But as you are about to jump in, you take a look around the boat. It is literally surrounded by trash. Styrofoam to-go lunch boxes, clear plastic bags, plastic soda bottles. Even shoes. Suddenly your excitement for the dive just drains away.

Unfortunately I recently had that exact experience here in Haiti. And even more unfortunately, this was just one of several occasions where I have found myself swimming around trash in the water off of Haiti's coast. It is common to see dozens of plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other random trash on the beaches and right off the shore. As an environmentally conscious person, living in Haiti and seeing this environmental disaster depresses me, infuriates me, and sometimes makes me hopeful, all at the same time.

To finish with the scuba diving story, I did end up diving. The trash was floating on the top of the surface, so the scuba divers weren't affected so much (the snorkelers...a little more so). But our dive master did mention that it was "normal" and that the trash wouldn't stay around us. It was garbage from the city that got flushed out to sea by rain, and would be going farther out to sea with the current. But just thinking about the hundreds of sea turtles that die from eating plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish, this logic didn't do much to ease my irritation.

Proper trash disposal does not exist in Haiti. It's impossible to find a trash can on the street. And even when you do think you are sending your trash to be properly disposed and separating your recyclables, you can't even be sure where your garbage and recyclables will end up. Trash that is collected is eventually burned -- and if you have ever smelt the burning of plastic, with the toxins being released into the air, you can understand that it is not a pleasant smell, to say the least. For these reason it makes sense that there is little culture or awareness of trash disposal among the majority of Haitians. The end result is that most people simply throw their garbage onto the ground wherever they are: as the streets are already so full of trash, what is one extra plastic bottle in the gutter?

Although great organizations and initiatives do exist to try and curb waste (local Ramase Lajan and Haiti Recycling work with U.S.-based Thread LLC to turn plastic flakes from Port-au-Prince's streets to thread and woven into polyester-type fabric while El Fuego del Sol Haiti employs locals to create briquettes used for cooking, made with recycled paper products), the problem is not getting as much attention as it needs. In 2012 (and again in 2013), the Haitian government passed a law forbidding the importation of plastic polyethylene bags and polystyrene foam. Yet without effective enforcement and monitoring of the ban, not much progress has been made; these materials are still easily brought in from the Dominican Republic. And the litter isn't excluded to just the city- as mentioned, due to rainstorms and floods, cities' trash often finds its way into the ocean and onto beaches.

In addition to the obvious environmental, aesthetic, and health issues that result from garbage and improper trash disposal, (methane emitted from decomposing materials, toxins from burned plastic, and contaminated drinking water, all pose high health risks) key factors of potential economic growth for the country, namely tourism and foreign investment, can also be threatened by Haiti's lack of waste management.

The state of the environment has detrimental affects on bringing economic development to the country. Although tourism is the major industry in other Caribbean islands, and is one way the Haitian government plans on bringing development to the country, no one wants to spend money and time traveling to a tropical destination, only to find dozens of plastic soda bottles and pieces of Styrofoam washed up on shore of the hotel's beach. Furthermore, lack of waste management and poor visual appearance of cities can constrain and discourage foreign investment, as well as tourism.

More (practical and affordable) alternatives to the most consumed (and most littered) products in Haiti would allow for less dependence on the plastic bags and styrofoam boxes. Reusable metal containers could be a choice, and I am seeing more of the compostable to-go boxes at various restaurants around Port-au-Prince. Yet clearly these alternatives must also be practical and economical. In addition, small plastic bags that contain clean drinking water, that can be found on the ground almost everywhere in Haiti, have no clear substitutes.

As is often the case with economic development, countries tend to care more about economic growth, up to a certain point, at which citizens can actually afford caring about the environment. At this point, as the environmental Kuznets curve illustrated, citizens are more likely to demand more resource allocation towards improvements in environmental quality. Haiti most likely will be another example of this phenomenon. Yet the fact that this economic growth (i.e. tourism in Haiti's case) may depend on environmental quality in the first place, is my point of concern.

Haiti has so much to offer, in particular to the tourism industry. Being one of the Caribbean islands with the highest mountain peaks, Haiti is a great place for adventurers who love to hike and explore nature. More diving tours and PADI certifications classes are being offered just a little over an hour outside the capital. Yet when you feel you have to pick up all the glass beer bottles you find on the bottom of the ocean, the allure of the coral reef dims just a bit.