“Trash is just treasure in the wrong place”: The social metabolism of waste in Grenada

Within a modern, globalized world, islands face evolving and complex development constraints related to managing scarce resources, maintaining fragile natural environments, reducing consumption and waste within bounds of their limited carry capacity, and maintaining adequate economic and social systems for thriving populations. Grenada, a tri-island Caribbean state (population: 112,003) is no exception. For this dissertation, I investigate the impacts and threats of solid waste on small island state sustainability. Using a case study approach, my research askes an overarching question: What opportunities exist for islands to sustainably manage their waste?

I investigate Grenada’s waste management system using the social metabolism approach. Social metabolism theorizes that sustainable development, including transitioning to a more sustainable waste management system, is dependent on both the biophysical, material flows (i.e., how much ‘stuff’ is extracted from and dumped in the environment) and the social processes that support these material flows (i.e., the institutions and cultural norms that govern).

Material flow accounting (MFA) was selected as a method to account for the biophysical flows of waste in Grenada. The result of the MFA demonstrates the importance and value of measuring and assessing waste management systems. Grenada’s economy is characterized by a one-way, linear flow of materials. Products are imported, manufactured, used, and discarded in the open dumpsites or disposed in one of several illegal dumpsites throughout the nation. Despite comparatively low generation rates, Grenada’s dumpsite are at capacity, and in absence of changes to current waste accumulation, these dumpsites are teetering on an environmental tipping point that threatens social, environmental, and economic health. Governance actors, particularly policy makers, cannot manage what they cannot measure, therefore sound data is critically important to guide transitions to sustainable waste management systems. MFA is one such means for waste managers and policy makers to assess their sociometabolic risk and understand the resource potential of waste materials. But material flows are also driven by institutional elements like legislation, regulation, policies, normative positions and engrained social habits that are culturally supported.

To assess social-cultural aspects of Grenada’s waste metabolism, I engage in two separate, yet interrelated studies. Through expert interviewees and government document analysis, I assessed the governing system impacting Grenadian waste management. The results, presented in Chapter 5, demonstrate that Grenada has a legacy of implementation and institutional challenges related to a project-based, end-of-pipe approach that has failed to deliver adequate waste management. Current governance mechanism and institutions are lacking comprehensive coverage, and are outdated, absent or inadequately enforced. This governance gap is reinforced by lack of data for decision-making.

Public participation in waste management forms an important basis for effective decision making and strategy, as it is a key aspect of forming legitimate governing structures and institutions. As the public is a key participant in everyday waste management practices, it is critically important to understand habits, behaviors, perspectives, and concerns of citizens. To understand the role and potential contributions of citizens in waste management, I undertook a grounded, “bottom-up” investigation of the challenges and opportunities for Grenadian waste management. Citizen interviews, rich pictures, and focus groups were the primary method of data collection, and were triangulated through an analysis of newspaper articles, and my own observations and collected artifacts (e.g., field notes and photographs). Research participants depicted a variety of perspectives; but, generally – and most importantly - they demonstrated the importance of citizen participation in waste management governance and social metabolic research. The results are organized around three roles that Grenadian citizens play in the waste management system: as participants and enablers of waste management; as stewards of the environment concerned with their health, environmental justice, and pollution in their communities; and as islanders offering local knowledge, innovation, and insights into what is possible in Grenada. The results offers a glance at what could be gained through a more representative, nation-wide consultation, and looking inward – instead of outward – for solutions to sociometabolic risk associated with waste management in Grenada.

This dissertation makes a key contribution to the literature by looking at both the material and socio-cultural aspects of waste management to provide a comprehensive, systems-based analysis of waste management as a problem within a social-ecological system. An island appropriate circular economy is one aspirational means of achieving a sustainable waste management system. From the results, I make practical, specific recommendations (with reporting indicators and financial implications) to strengthen waste management governance, including updating legislation and improving participation in global governance agreements and importantly, improve public participation through engagement, infrastructure availability and education.

Improving the waste management system is integral to the sustainability of the Spice Island and Pure Grenada. The Grenadian government must increase investment in waste management, taking a systematic approach to addressing the root causes, governance concerns and enhance public participation in the process. In absence of changes to current waste accumulation, the waste management system is teetering on an environmental tipping point that threatens social, environmental, and economic health, and Grenada’s progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

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