Yet tourism demands cleanliness. The tourism industry of the Punta Cana region, and to a large degree of the Dominican Republic, is entirely dependent on its beautiful beaches, crystalline blue seas, and abundant freshwater for its hotel guests and tropical landscaping. With no barriers to avoid contamination of the underground aquifers, the dump I found upon arriving, only eight miles on a straight line from the ocean, could foul freshwater supplies and potentially reach the ocean and destroy the coral reefs.
My first visit to the privately run Gerom dump had been nightmarish. Dozens of Dominican and Haitian buzos (scavengers) sorted through the piles of garbage by hand, looking for useful or valuable materials. The smell was overwhelming. Tractors pushed the mountains of trash from side to side. This “landfill” was actually a former limestone quarry that had been converted into an unlined dump, receiving unsorted garbage from close to 40 all-inclusive hotels operating in the Punta Cana region. The collection system wasn’t much better—ancient compaction trucks leaked a putrid brown liquid on the streets of the resort as they drove around collecting garbage. On top of this, the system was expensive and often erratic, and we had already been warned of a 10 percent increase in waste hauling fees. But with little government oversight to regulate waste (no local government even existed in 2006), there appeared to be no solution in sight.
After studying our waste production, Ojeda and our team prepared a detailed proposal for completely transforming our existing system into a model one. Our plan called for a new system based on the growing international trend of “Zero Waste” communities that seek to minimize the amount of garbage they send to the landfill. We proposed building a recycling and incineration center for the resort, where we would receive and sort all of the waste from the airport terminal, all arriving airplanes, and all the resort installations, including three hotel properties, more than 1,000 homes, a medium-sized shopping mall, half a dozen office buildings, an electric plant, an industrial laundry, three golf courses, more than 14 restaurants and a marina. International waste from arriving planes that couldn’t be recycled would be incinerated as required by international regulations.
In addition to the recycling plant and worm-composting, we proposed implementation of a resort-wide training and education program, encouraging classification of waste at the source to avoid contamination of the recyclable materials we could sell, and facilitating the use of organic materials in composting. We would radically change how we managed our waste, sending a fraction of the material to the dump, reducing our dependence on external companies and their volatile pricing, all while eventually reducing our costs. We even insisted that we should no longer refer to these materials as “garbage” but rather as “materials” and “solid waste,” to encourage a different mindset of considering these materials as potentially useful.
After we showed how our program, while expansive and expensive, would pay for itself in time, our CEO, Frank Rainieri, declared, “Yes, yes, the financial part is important. We need to make it economically sustainable. But we need to do this for another, more important reason: to be competitive.” He observed that passengers, guests, homeowners and potential homeowners come primarily from developed countries, and they expect their waste to be handled correctly. “If we want to remain competitive, we need to manage our waste as well or better than the countries where our visitors come from,” he added.
While the program has had a profound impact on our community and company and proved to be economically viable, we now realize Zero Waste is not just a project but an ongoing and almost continuous process of improvement of practices. Our Zero Waste enterprise has not yet completely eliminated all waste at the resort as the lofty name suggests, and we are still searching for a viable, long-term solution for organic waste, to complement our growing but still experimental worm-composting program. We still continually conduct training and education programs throughout the resort. And I still occasionally get my hands dirty.
Original article: http://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/galleries/zero-waste-punta-cana-garbage-and-tourism-dominican-republic