Glass Starfish from Green VI are displayed on the beach
Glass Starfish from Green VI are displayed on the beach

ECO Pioneers

Three innovative thinkers reuse, recycle and re-purpose

Thoughts of waste for many BVI residents, does not go far beyond the kitchen trashcan or much past the neighborhood green waste container, whose contents get hauled off to the Pockwood Pond Incinerator or the Virgin Gorda landfill. But what if we are really missing all the useful benefits of recycling our trash into profitable treasure?

What if we truly understood that following nature’s pattern of decomposition could yield new energy sources and spawn new jobs and entrepreneurial businesses? Would we be so quick to dump and dismiss? Three innovative thinkers in the Territory – Charlotte McDevitt, Julie Swartz and Carrie Wright are exploring ways that recycling can be beneficial to an island-based economy and eco-system.

Charlotte McDevitt is one of the territory’s “eco-pioneers.” When Charlotte and her family arrived in Tortola six years ago from her native South Africa, she was working on her doctoral dissertation on Waste Streams Management. Within the following year she set up Green VI, a non-profit organization dedicated to showing the benefits of sustainable living through environmental education and community projects surrounding the themes of waste, energy and water.

A recyclables trash bin

What, might you ask, is “sustainable living” and why do I need to be concerned about it? Proponents of sustainable living try to live their lives in balance with the earth’s ecology. This involves a lifestyle based on the concepts of reuse, recycle and repurpose. One becomes keenly aware of this in the BVI, where derelict vehicles become unintended landmarks with trees growing out of them, and plastic waste often washes ashore on our beautiful beaches and chokes and smothers aquatic life. When trash is not managed, it comes back to bite.

Charlotte began her non-profit venture by collaborating with Petrona Davies, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Social Development, which directly oversees the Department of Waste Management. Charlotte’s years of research in waste management were submitted as a part of the comprehensive plan that went into the Strategic Waste Management Proposal, adopted by the Government in 2014.

The upside to this story is that trash is an amazing resource waiting to be tapped.The first educational tool Charlotte set up was the VI Glass Factory, which until recently was located in Cane Garden Bay in the lot adjacent to Myett’s Restaurant. Here a master glass blower taught a few select interns the art of glass blowing with glass bottles that were recycled from the area restaurants. Beautiful glasses, vases, plates, and decorative household items were sold here and school groups came through to learn about recycling. In the four years at this location, the glass factory was eventually able to use bio fuel (recycled cooking oil) as the energy source for the homemade kilns that fired the art pieces.

“I know people are wondering why we are not there anymore,” Charlotte explained.“But we basically out grew the spot and needed a location where we could not only recycle glass but demonstrate how to directly use organic material (food waste), sewage, and Sargassum seaweed to create energy. Green VI is currently in negotiations with a resort on Virgin Gorda to set up their site and hopes to be viable by 2017.  Plans are underway to recycle the resort’s used cooking oil, food waste and sewage into renewable energy, as well as produce artful glass products.

“We are going to set up a lab to test what waste streams will work best and are collaborating with a studio in Mexico doing the same thing,” she said. “When organic material breaks down, the process is called anaerobic digestion. The bacteria formed is a living system, and if fed the right things, will produce as an end product ­– methane, which is a valuable energy source.” What nature does naturally is best she emphasized.

Green and clean VI glass crusher on Virgin GordaVirgin Gorda appears to be just the right place for this eco-project, as another player in the sustainable living scheme is longtime Virgin Gorda resident, Julie Swartz, founder of Green and Clean VI. This is a privately owned for profit business currently recycling glass in giant crushers to be used as aggregate for landfill, gardening, roads, even decorative counter tops. Julie’s business, which is two years old, is now partnering with government to supply the aggregate needed to mix with concrete for the BVI road systems. The industrial crushers are able to make the glass into a fine sand consistency or a pellet like aggregate useful in gardening with perfect drainage capacity or decorative topsoil. If you want a green “Heineken river” in your landscaping, Julie can provide it. Her colored “pea gravel” can be used in artistic concrete counter tops, which many of her clients in Virgin Gorda can attest to.

The most recent recycling partner to join the vision is Carrie Wright, a fairly new transplant from Canada. After several years of bareboating in the BVI with her husband, she was dismayed that so little recycling was in effect. Her background in working at the university level with students involved in “social innovation” (new ways to deliver public services) and her interest in a sustainable environment brought her onboard with what she terms as a “social value proposition.” Social entrepreneurship is applying problem solving skills to a social problem. With this idea in mind, she has formed a company to recycle plastics called VI Plastics. Carrie’s concept is to collect plastic waste and fashion it into durable all-weather “wicker” furniture, as well as creating plastic bead floor boarding for decks, under her company, Coral Lane Furniture & Goods. She plans to hire locally and work with students at the HL Stoutt Community College Environmental Club.

Green and Clean VI
Entries in the annual charity fundraiser where household castoffs are transformed into chairs

Both the Virgin Island for profit and not for profit businesses have a joint venture in mind, called the Eco-Industrial Park. The site they have their eyes on is the current Virgin Gorda landfill, approached on the hill opposite the entrance to Gorda Peak. Here waste is still being openly burned, although a transfer station has been in the works. The idea would be to compact and transfer waste to the large Pockwood Pond Facility on Tortola, as is currently being done with waste from Jost Van Dyke. The eco-minded entrepreneurs feel that this is just shifting the problem, not solving it and that managing the waste system right at its source is the best solution.Julie gets excited when she thinks of alternative possibilities. “Every waste stream has its place, and here we could start by diverting the trash as it arrives at the hill above the land fill,” she explained. Organic materials could go into composters for gardening use or to produce energy; the glass, plastic and cans can go to our MRF Facility (Material Reclamation Facility) for reprocessing; then we can deal with our more troublesome waste streams – such as cardboard and tires, and some forms of e-waste (electronics) which due to many factors may have to be shipped out.”  The raw materials for a potential used car parts business could come from derelict vehicles; and discarded wood from construction sites, for wood working entrepreneurs. Julie envisions much of the power needed (or excess to be sold) could be generated by the waste from marina holding tanks and Sargassum, a type of seaweed that has polluted BVI beaches in the past.All three eco-entrepreneurs see community involvement as key. Green VI partners with Nutmeg Designs for the annual Chair-ity Exhibit, an event to raise awareness of ways to reuse, repair and recycle. This is a challenge to adults and youth alike to use their creativity to build or rebuild chairs by creatively repurposing materials not generally thought of for chairs. There are awards and prizes in this fun and highly anticipated event. Julie sees the community being involved through Green and Clean VI to create community garden plots and spawn new businesses from waste. VI Plastics will help to educate and collaborate with students at the college level.Three women, three businesses and three sets of innovative ideas are certain to impact the BVI in a positive way. With 50% of the territories’ waste being organic, 15% glass and 15% plastic, dealing with these three waste streams alone takes 80% of the waste out of the equation.As Julie of Green and Clean VI so artfully put it, “We do not want to offer jobs, we want to offer futures.” The ultimate goal is zero waste. That’s right, zero waste, and all three believe it can be done. The Green VI website seems to say it all with a quote from poet and writer, Maya Angelou: “We know better, we must do better.”

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