All and sundry agree: the words “Georgetown” and “garbage” are synonymous. We all know the complexities, largely political, behind the situation, and it’s been going on for over a decade, but for those who live here and should be inured to the sight, it is still a shock with certain parts of the city (Quamina-East Street; Church Street facing Bourda) bordering on revolting.  Discussions on the matter including letters to the press abound and constant reference is made to the one-time “Garden City” that Georgetown was, but some aspects pass unnoticed.

One is that there has been a significant change in the type of garbage we produce now.  The flood of plastic and Styrofoam and cardboard containers, not in existence 30 years ago, is a reality of modern life, and that change has been massive. In the “Garden City” era shopping items came home in bio-degradable or reusable bags, and in my mother’s house in West Demerara, for instance, the garbage produced from that home was essentially fruit and vegetable skins. Indeed, household garbage pickup was a rarity.

In the business world, the elaborate cardboard and plastic containers used for modern production items and equipment today also means substantially more material for the dump than was previously the case. For a city such as Georgetown, the tonnage of garbage per person produced now must be forbidding compared to that earlier time, and the population is also larger. Adding to the volume of discarded material is the modern “throwaway” factor that is a feature of today’s consumer products.  Going back 30 years, we would repair or rejuvenate most appliance items. Now consumer items breaking down are cheaper to replace than to repair, so another piece of garbage is created from that process compounded by the non-degradable material unpacked from the new machine. There are also a host of totally new products added to the garbage chain – cell phones, computers, lawn mowers, plastic items, various electric tools and appliances. Useful to society in so many ways, these objects are added to the variety and volume of what our waste collection and disposal systems have to handle.

so it goA fourth factor is the growth of the number of people in the  “Garden City”, and, particular of those who now are much better placed financially to be able to afford more and buy more and therefore discard more.  The difference here must be staggering when, to cite only one example, one considers the thousands of worn out automotive batteries and tires that now constitute a disposal problem. Fast-food containers constitute another manifest contributor to the clutter.

The changes have been dramatic and the consequent litter obvious.  While some voices are raised agonizing over it, the general position seems to be that the condition is beyond us and there is nothing we can do. In fact, we can do some things in our own sphere. The citizens and the businesses in the country are actually the producers of all this waste, and we can reduce our contribution to the flood. In trips to the grocery store alone, we could make a huge dent in the number of plastic bags we deposit in our own garbage, by simply taking a permanent bag of our own for our items when we shop. Virtually every week, in the average household, at least 20 black plastic bags are coming into the house with various supermarket or fruit store items. Multiplied by thousands of households, the total plastic eliminated would be huge.

In every retail outlet that one goes to in Guyana we’re bringing out plastic bags whose immediate destination is the garbage can. Even when we’re buying a post-card or a pair of tiny triple-A batteries, we are routinely offered one of those black plastic bags that live in Guyana like black ants on a sapodilla tree – they are everywhere, in the thousands. Why don’t we refuse them? Very often, when I dismiss the inevitable plastic bag offer, the response is “Are you sure?” Why does everything have to go in a plastic bag that we simply take home and deposit straight in the garbage? The bag has been in use for maybe 30 minutes and, non degradable as it is, it will stay in the environment for decades.

Driving the Georgetown environs, it is a common sight to see litter flying out of the window of the vehicle in front of us. We seem blind to the fact that the place we are littering is our own city, where we live or come to work or shop; that in fact we may well drive by an area today and see the garbage we ourselves deposited yesterday. Business places in the city are another major offender, often dumping their cartons and other packing material on a nearby parapet (you can read the brand names as you pass) or even paying the indigent to dump it in a distant spot in the city. I pulled behind a police car recently that was stopped adjacent to a pile of garbage in town. As I sat there, a Styrofoam box flew out the passenger side window of the cruiser into the garbage pile, and the vehicle moved on. We are literally littering where we live.

Having said that, however, let me add this: the label consequently placed on Guyana as being loutish in this behaviour is missing a salient point, in fact the salient point of the litter problem we face, which is the absence of systems and regulations to ensure standards across the board in our administrations, public and private.  We drive recklessly, we violate regulations, we bend rules and even break them, we are guilty of indiscipline, we litter, and we are guilty of all those things because ultimately the restraints that should exist to prevent those behaviours are either hardly in place or absent completely here.

The Guyanese who migrates to a developed society immediately stops littering, or driving recklessly, or jumping lines, or, as in a case near me, leaving a rusting tractor abandoned on his parapet for three years. The administration of the district or the town or the suburb comes down hard on those offenders – that is what stops the behaviours. When the City of Toronto in the 1960s initiated the separation of household garbage by type (paper, cans, bottles, newspapers) citizen response was tepid, but the threat of fines, and actual fines, turned the tide.

In the end, the absence of that governmental attitude to collection and disposal in Georgetown is the key hurdle to be crossed. Individual efforts to reduce litter and better manage the litter we create will help, but the litter will be with us until our government settles its disputes and begins providing dumpsters and systematic collection with fines being applied to enforce regulations. Until modern equipment and determined administration comes along, a memory will be all we have of the beautifully clean “Garden City”.