by Sandra Weiss
Popular with European tourists, the Caribbean island no longer knows what to do with its rubbish.
At 372 metres, Christoffelberg is the highest point on the Caribbean island of Curacao. In six years, Sabine Berendse estimates, Mont Malpais will top it. Malpais is Curacao's only rubbish dump. Berendse is the founder of Green Phenix, a local environmental start-up that has set itself a lofty goal: To de-pollute Curacao. Because waste is increasingly becoming a problem on the Caribbean island, which is popular with tourists. Turtles suffocate in old fishing nets; microplastic ends up in fish stomachs and thus in the food chain.
Conservationist Berendse has been criticising this for a long time; in the meantime, politicians have also woken up: the island, which is the size of Manhattan, has to export more and more waste. But the freight costs have skyrocketed due to the pandemic. "In 2020, each island resident produced an average of 1200 kilograms of rubbish a year," says Ciaretta Profas, advisor to the government on environmental and conservation policy. "That's three times the usual amount in Latin America." The government is currently examining how waste can be used as a raw material for new value creation. "Our goal is a circular economy."
The islanders are taking the first steps towards a circulatory economy together.
While the politicians are talking, Green Phenix is putting its own stamp on it. Berendse is standing ankle-deep in a silt of sand, seaweed, old ropes and plastic bottles on San Pedro beach. It is located on the rough, rocky north coast of Curacao. The coast is barren, windswept and parts of it are a nature reserve because they are the nesting place of the sea turtles. Plastic bottles from the USA, oil bottles with Asian characters, sex toys, broken bathing slippers, even a lampshade and a toilet lid are discovered by Berendse, shaking his head.
Twice a week she goes out with her team, each time it's different beach. Once a month, the circle closes. And the same Sisyphean task begins each time. After four hours under the scorching sun, a dozen rubbish bags are filled and lashed to Green Phenix's pickup truck. Their team has done a great job. The rubbish has already been pre-sorted. Berendse brings the non-recyclable part to the dump. Plastic bottles (PET), yoghurt pots (PP), detergent bottles (PE-HD) and aluminium cans go to the small Green Phenix factory. It is located in a charming old Caribbean villa in an outer district of the colourful island capital Willemstad.
Along with waste control, Green Phenix also has a social mission.
There Ansye Sebastiana stands and separates the plastic according to material and colour. "This is my mission now," says the 57-year-old. "To keep Curacao clean and save the oceans." Besides fighting rubbish, Green Phenix also has a social ambition. The rubbish is to become a tool to give work and self-confidence to those who live on the margins of society: The unemployed, single parents, the disabled. Green Phenix employs eight permanent workers; for the 24 part-time workers, the salaries come from a social welfare fund of the state.
Still, it's not enough. That's why the Tui Care Foundation stepped into the breach, supporting sustainable projects in tourist areas worldwide. In three years, Green Phenix aims to be self-sustaining - from the sale of recycled products.
Vases and tableware are designer Kees Kunkeler's speciality. The intern from Holland is the master of several 3D printers. Next door, Luis Guevara,23, and his friend Juni Rooger, 29, push shredded plastic particles into an oven and bake red, blue and yellow hearts in moulds to serve as party decorations. Erwin Sprot makes bracelets out of can tops and sculptures out of crown caps from beer bottles. "For me, it's a challenge to make art out of what others throw away," says the 64-year-old. He has even received a prize from Unesco for one of his sculptures. All this is sold in the Green Phenix shop and in Irvin Bernard's souvenir shop. He is the chairman of the businessmen of Mambo Beach, the hippest beach of the island capital Willemstad. Trash and tourism meet here every weekend. Mambo Beach is where the hottest parties are held, attended by locals and tourists alike.
"Demand is very good," says Berendse. Apparently, environmental awareness is also growing among tourists.
Early at four o'clock, when the party slowly comes to an end, a team from Green Phenix comes to clean up the mess. When the first early risers occupy the sunbeds at seven o'clock, the white sand is spotless again. In order to sensitise tourists to the issue of waste, the association of shopkeepers led by Bernard set up waste baskets with waste separation a few months ago. Interested holidaymakers can also visit the Green Phenix factory and take part in beach clean-ups. "The demand is brisk," says Berendse. Apparently, environmental awareness is also growing among tourists.