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For people living and working in Port-of-Spain, a fire at the Beetham landfill meant enduring the reduced air quality caused by the stench and smoke that blanketed the capital for a few days last week.

It was, regrettably, a familiar experience as fires that take days to completely extinguish occur at that facility at least once a year.

But that smoke and the smell are only a tiny fraction of the pollutants generated from that landfill which is several years past its expiration date. Unseen but of greater concern are contaminating materials, including lead and mercury, that leach into the soil and groundwater.

That site was, until the mid-1980s, an open burning dumpsite known then as La Basse. Now managed by the Solid Waste Management Company Limited (SWMCOL), it is the biggest of the four major landfills in the country.

But in all its incarnations its location on 60 hectares of land on the outskirts of the city in the ecologically sensitive Caroni Swamp has been a cause for concern.

Landfills like the one at the Beetham are partially responsible for generating and releasing biogas–a mixture that includes methane gas and carbon dioxide, two of the gases that cause climate change–so the plan to close and rehabilitate that site should take on greater urgency.

Since early 2018, there has been talk about changing over to a modern, scientific method of waste capture and disposal based primarily on a nationwide waste recycling project. This initiative is supposed to be spearheaded by the Planning and Development Ministry and although that ministerial portfolio has recently shifted from Camille Robinson-Regis to Pennelope Beckles, it should remain a priority project.

The Beetham landfill fire is a pungent reminder of how serious an issue waste collection and disposal are in this country, costing the Government $321 million a year to manage.

T&T generates approximately 1.4 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year and since 2015 there has been a significant and rapid reduction in capacity at the major landfills.

Adding to the magnitude of the problem is the illegal dumping of waste on the sides of roads, empty lots, and into watercourses, leading to floods during the rainy season.

For that reason, the Cabinet’s approval last year of the Waste Management Rules, 2021 and the Waste Management (Fees) Regulations, 2021 which were subsequently laid in Parliament is a step in the right direction.

The Rules are intended to establish a legal framework for improved waste management and once fully implemented will cover the generation, processing, treatment, packaging, storage, transportation, collection, disposal, recovery, recycling, and all other activities related to the treatment of waste.

An improved waste management system will mean, finally, that the outdated and unhealthy landfills will be replaced with more environmentally-friendly facilities.

To ensure that this long-promised system works, however, will require a significant cultural shift as this is not a population that embraces recycling and other practices necessary for a cleaner, greener nation.

But for small island developing states like ours, this change is essential for the health of the population and the environment.