Cleaning our Coastline: Why Don’t Jamaicans Care?

August 26th, 2014

There was a deep churning in my stomach. A sourness in the back of my throat. The captain cut the engine of our boat, which had moved across the calm, silvery water and among the gliding pelicans of Kingston Harbour from Port Royal, heading for downtown.

Yes, it was a lovely morning. But the stench that floated up from the water (which was very dark here) and from the shore was overpowering. We held our noses, but there was no escape. Some of the group of journalists (and several government agencies) began to murmur. “What’s that smell?” “What is this?” as we approached the Rae Town Gully, one of a network of drains that empty into the harbour. Plastic bottles piled up. Dank green pools, thick with algae and breeding grounds for mosquitoes, gathered among the collection of garbage. There were car tyres; plastic “scandal bags” containing unmentionable things; a tired old refrigerator leaning in its final resting place; all kinds of household waste – and likely sewage too.

This was just part of the (normally unseen) mass of garbage and filth we witnessed during a trip round the harbor organized by the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) with the assistance of the Port Royal Marine Laboratory. I say “unseen” because, as we drive around Kingston on our daily chores, we would never know the ugliness that is there, just out of sight. The garbage lurks beneath the roads downtown. It hides behind the huge rocks along the Palisadoes strip, piled up during road rehabilitation. It floats in little strings across the middle of the harbor and bounces just beneath the surface. It is caught in the mangroves in the Palisadoes, out of sight of the Port Royal road. And it covers a piece of land adjoining the Norman Manley International Airport and owned by the Airports Authority of Jamaica, where we found a stinking dump burning (isn’t it illegal to burn garbage?) But then, if we ever look down the gullies that we drive over every day (and if we thought about it for five minutes) it might dawn on us that all – yes, all – the garbage we see in piles down there will eventually reach the sea. But a large part of it is hidden from view.

The aim of JET’s tour was two-fold, however. It illustrated one fact: our coastline is in a simply disgusting state. So, this is good motivation for all Jamaicans to come out en masse on International Coastal Cleanup Day (September 20). There are 114 registered sites all around the island, so we all have no excuse not to participate. Co-sponsors are the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) and the private sector-led Recycling Partners of Jamaica.

After returning to Port Royal for light refreshments (my stomach still didn’t feel right) we learned about a new one-year pilot project, the Clean Coasts Project, rolling out next month. This is a partnership between the Ministry of Tourism and JET. Activities will focus on the tourist resort areas of Negril, Montego Bay, Runaway Bay, Ocho Rios and I believe the Treasure Beach area.

The project will be school-focused; JET already has an excellent Schools Environment Programme (SEP), which was scaled down some years ago due to lack of funding but remains vibrant. The SEP schools, among others in the tourist areas, will participate in various activities, including field trips, involving hundreds of students who will pursue school-based assessment projects tied to the curriculum. Public education – for all ages – will be a major (and necessary) feature of the project. The plan is also to establish a schedule of underwater cleanups – 32 in all from September 2014 to May 2015. The Ministry’s Tourism Action Clubs will spearhead this effort before the start of the winter season. JET will also undertake a sustainable year-long cleanup effort.

Last but not least, the Clean Coasts Project will include the Tourism Action Clubs monitoring waste discarded in gullies in two target areas. It will be interesting to see what the results of this study will find.

And, believe me – visitors do notice a degraded environment, and they don’t like it. They notice piles of garbage in our tourism towns (Ocho Rios is, sadly, dirty and scruffy). They notice pollution and garbage on our public beaches (if they venture outside the carefully-manicured, sanitized all-inclusive hotels). I remember my mother on a visit some years ago, refusing to sit down on a beach that was covered with little piles of garbage, including used diapers. No, I am not going to tell you where it was! I have been embarrassed many times when taking visitors around the island. They comment on it.

So, why do we Jamaicans tolerate this? Why do we mess up our environment, like careless spoiled children? If we are worried about the tourists not liking it, then why don’t we care about it for ourselves? Do we assume the visitors have higher standards than us? If so, why is this? Where is our self esteem?

OK, the Cleanup Day is “symbolic.” We know the garbage will be back again, the following week. But JET hopes the event will raise awareness, keeping it in the minds of Jamaicans who will start to take greater personal responsibility for the waste we all produce, and pressure our political representatives for improved ways to dispose of and recycle our garbage. I understand that very little recycling is done at Riverton City Dump, which takes 60 per cent of the island’s waste, by the way. And only half of us actually have our garbage collected.

This all sounds very promising. Although only a one-year project, I hope it will be extended. I also feel that we need such a project, desperately, in the Kingston/St. Andrew/St. Catherine area, where most of our population live. Not for tourists – for us.

I also hope that we will pull ourselves together, take responsibility (each and every one of us) and change our behavior. Yes, the government agencies responsible should be doing a much better job, but they are limping along with dwindling resources.

It’s up to us. And if adults can’t change their filthy ways, at least teach the children.





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8 Responses to “Cleaning our Coastline: Why Don’t Jamaicans Care?”


    As a people, we have become a nasty lot. If each person cleans his or her own little space, we would not be experiencing this problem today. A nasty lot indeed, totally uncaring and unconcerned about the environment…

  2. Excellent article! I’m so glad to hear about the number of sites registered for International Coastal Cleanup Day and the partnerships between JET, Tourism Enhancement Fund, Ministry of Tourism, Recycling Partners of JA, Tourism Action Clubs and others – keep up the great work to clean up, and raise awareness to reduce, reuse and recycle.

    We are excited to promote bird and nature tourism in Jamaica through our Caribbean Birding Trail Project (, but you are so right—tourists are definitely turned off by garbage (not to mention the horrendous effects of this pollution on human health and wildlife). I hope that the efforts to reduce waste and clean-up will gather more supporters and successes in the coming months – looking forward to hearing about it!

  3. Dennis Jones says:

    Try to catch a replay of TVJ’s little piece yesterday evening on the garbage problems in Lucea. Really sickening.

  4. EmmaLewis says:

    I saw it, Dennis. We saw equally nauseating sights on this trip. I think it replicates itself across the island. There have been quite a few media reports on this issue, so I really hope it will drastically raise public awareness and that this will be sustained. Leading to action, of course!

  5. EmmaLewis says:

    Thanks so much, Lisa. Yes, there is definitely a growing public awareness in Jamaica (and hopefully worldwide). Participation grows every year. The challenge is extending it throughout the year. A one-day event is symbolic!

  6. EmmaLewis says:

    Well, hopefully we can change our ways, Esteban! There is always hope.

  7. Jeffery Sinclair says:

    Jamaicans can and need to play a part. I am particularly surprised at the costal pollution in the tourist resorts and the beaches….

    We need more aggressive education and promotion…

    Get the kids out to costal cleanups so they can see that that plastic bottle thrown on the street is not only nasty but can and will end up in the sea and affect our livelihood as a people.

  8. EmmaLewis says:

    Yes, we must get more aggressive with the public education. By far the best way, I think, is to get young people active with things like beach clean-ups (and not just once a year) – when they see for themselves the harm this is doing, they get the message very quickly!