The plastic wars | Green

Plastic pollution is a growing danger to the environment, to wildlife, and to ourselves. As Jamaica implements the first major plastics ban in the Caribbean, Erline Andrews learns about its possible impact — and pitfalls

  • In 2017, photographer Caroline Power documented a massive patch of floating garbage off the Honduran island of Roatán — including vast quantities of plastic. Photo by Caroline Power
  • Washed into the ocean, plastic bags can be mistaken by sea turtles for jellyfish, part of their regular diet. Photo by Rich Carey / Shutterstock.com

It started in 1990, when Nantucket, an island off the US state of Massachusetts, became the first local authority to ban plastic shopping bags. Concerns about the convenient and widely popular items had begun to emerge as early as the 1970s, when researchers observed plastic litter in the ocean that was harming marine life. Animals were getting entangled in and ingesting the trash.

In 2002, Ireland became the first country to mandate that consumers be directly charged for plastic bags. By that time, the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world’s largest collection of floating trash, had been discovered.

That year, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags entirely. The south Asian nation is susceptible to flooding, and plastic debris was found to be a main cause of clogged waterways. Rwanda followed in 2008, with one of the world’s most stringently enforced plastic bag bans. Today, eleven years later, Rwanda is considered one of the cleanest countries anywhere.

Over the past decade, countries and municipalities around the world have started banning or taxing single-use plastics at an exponential rate. What began as a trickle has become a flood. According to the first-ever United Nations report on the issue, of the sixty or so countries that have such regulations, about forty have put them in place within the last two years. In that time, eleven countries from the Caribbean Community (Caricom) have implemented a ban, or announced the intention to do so.

“There has been a global shift, and that has been largely attributable to environmental advocacy groups who have been working for decades on these issues, raising awareness,” says Suzanne Stanley, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) — one such group. In September, Jamaica announced one of the most comprehensive plastic waste control policies in the region, the result of months of work by a government-appointed task force that consulted various stakeholders.

Jamaica, with a population just shy of three million, imports about 1.4 billion plastic bags per year, according to the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, a Jamaican think tank. Most of them wind up in landfills, or are not properly disposed of, and contribute to flooding. But, beginning in January 2019, this number is expected to fall drastically. The country’s new policy bans the importation, manufacturing, and distribution of styrofoam containers, plastic straws, and plastic bags smaller than twenty-four by twenty-four inches. Manufacturers and importers can apply for two-year exemptions. Permanent exemptions for medical reasons will be granted for plastic straws. Breaking the law can result in fines of as much as JA$15,000. The government has pledged to deal with plastic bottles through a deposit-return system. They’ve already experimented with a limited pilot project.

“The major impact for me,” says Jamaican Senator Matthew Samuda, “was seeing that there is an island of garbage developing off the coast of Honduras which is coming from Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba — pretty much every island in the eastern Caribbean and Central America.” Samuda set the ball rolling on the ban when he presented a motion that was passed in Parliament.

 

On the lower end of the commitment scale in the region is Trinidad and Tobago, a country whose major export is oil, from which plastic is made. A bill written in 2012 to facilitate the recycling of plastic bottles has yet to be passed by Parliament. In July 2018, the minister of planning announced the intention to stop the importation of styrofoam containers by the start of the new year. She gave no further details or updates.

The private sector has picked up the slack. Massy Stores, the biggest supermarket chain in Trinidad and Tobago and the English-speaking Caribbean, started charging for plastic bags last July. In Barbados, they were joined by a group of other major supermarkets in an initiative organised by the NGO Future Centre Trust.

So far, other supermarkets and retailers in T&T haven’t followed Massy’s lead. Customer resistance seems stronger in T&T than elsewhere in the region, and it’s likely not a risk smaller chains and stores were willing to take. But Massy T&T marketing manager Anthony Choo Quan believes the customers the chain may have lost will come back, and that the move succeeded where it mattered most. The number of plastic bags the chain gives away dropped by eighty per cent in T&T, he says. “We used to give away 34 million bags a year. What was done to the drains, with the flooding, [and] the ocean was a lot.”

Choo Quan gave this interview shortly after T&T experienced some of the worst flooding in its history, in October 2018. Hundreds of people lost much of the contents of their homes. Video footage and photos of drains filled with plastic bottles and other debris were widely shared on social media.

Massy Stores T&T — a long-time corporate sponsor of environmental causes — has also installed reverse vending machines at three of its branches for customers to return used bottles and cans in exchange for shopping discount points. The deposits are picked up by a recycling company. Massy hopes to expand the initiative. Choo Quan says the chain is looking at other ways it can reduce plastic waste, even as there are signs consumer resistance will continue to be a challenge.

“Don’t tell me to walk around with my straw or walk around with my bag. It could be irritating,” says a customer outside one branch of Massy Stores, who would only give her name as Mala. She was referring to reusable bags and straws. “First provide [disposable] alternatives and then ban,” she says. She was one of the customers who resented the plastic bag fee, but she came around, she says, after visiting Britain and seeing it in operation there.

Other observers question the long-term effectiveness of bans, taxes, and alternative materials. Barry Fakoory, a Trinidadian manufacturer of plastic containers, says banning plastics can mean replacing them with products that are more expensive and may not be better for the environment.

“Plastic is the greatest invention ever made, but it’s the worst managed product ever made,” says Fakoory. “Why do so many people use plastics? It’s cheap. It’s durable. It’s a lot more sustainable than people say it is.”

 

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, St Vincent and the Grenadines, in addition to a ban on the importation of styrofoam, is removing value added tax from biodegradable containers to make them cheaper. One of the big problems with plastic is that it takes hundreds of years to decompose. But biodegradable products aren’t necessarily much better. Biodegradable plastics only break down under certain conditions. What’s more, according to UN experts, the chemicals that are supposed to make them biodegradable also make them harder to recycle, and can be harmful to the environment.

Fakoory believes the key to dealing with plastic in the long run is recycling and reusing it. The products he makes are composed of sixty per cent recycled material, he explains. “The issue should never be about biodegradability, but more about reusability, turning garbage into something useful. Until that is done, we’re never going to find the answer to world waste issues,” he says.

According to the UN report, in about twenty per cent of the countries with anti-single-use plastic regulations, they have had little impact because of a lack of enforcement and affordable alternatives. “The latter has led to cases of smuggling and the rise of black markets for plastic bags or to the use of thicker plastic bags that are not covered by the bans. This has increased environmental problems in some cases,” says the report.

JET’s Stanley worries that without a sustained public education programme and proper enforcement the Jamaica ban will also have little effect. “We don’t do well with enforcement in Jamaica,” she says. “A ban is only as good as enforcement. A ban is only as good as people complying because they’re educated and aware of its importance.”

Senator Samuda says the Jamaican government planned a public education campaign that included town hall meetings and ads. They’ll use feedback to adjust the policy going forward. The ban, he said, “is the first of many steps that we intend to take in terms of our environmental management and protection.”