Plastic Waste Emergency in Caribbean Sea: What is the Region Doing About It?

Alicia Nicholls

The 2.75 million square km Caribbean Sea’s ecological value is perhaps only outweighed by its economic value to the countries and territories, many of which are small island developing states, whose major industries and the livelihood of their populations depend on the health of the marine environment.

A 2016 World Bank Report entitled Toward a Blue Economy: A promise for Sustainable Growth in the Caribbean estimated the total gross revenues of the Caribbean ocean economy at US$407 billion based on 2012 data. Considering only the Caribbean small island States and territories, these gross revenues were estimated at US$53 billion, equivalent to over 18 percent of the total GDP for all Caribbean Island States and Territories in 2012″, according to this report.

Threats to the Caribbean Sea are numerous, but one of the biggest is the accumulation of plastic waste material.  The above-mentioned World Bank Report noted that the Caribbean Sea “is estimated to have relatively high levels of plastic concentrations compared with many other large marine ecosystems”.

Major culprits are plastic shopping bags, as well as Styrofoam containers and plastic cutlery which are commonly used by street food vendors, food establishments and at festivals and parties. These materials take hundreds of years to decompose, while in the meanwhile clogging drains and being blights on the beaches and other landscape. Plastic waste is often transported through waterways into the ocean via normal rainfall or flooding, and poses serious danger to marine life and coral reefs, with knock-on effects for fisheries, food security and tourism.

Legislative approaches

Several countries in the Caribbean have taken steps to tackle the plastics problem. Haiti was among the first, banning the importation, marketing and sale of plastic products in 2012 by presidential decree, with mixed results.

In 2016 Guyana banned the importation, sale and manufacture of expanded polystyrene products (styrofoam) and its regulations have served as a model for several other countries. Bans on the importation, sale and/or manufacture of various plastics have also been done in Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the US Virgin Islands.

In Antigua & Barbuda, for instance, the External Trade (Shopping Plastic Bags Prohibition Order) of 2017 prohibited after June 30, 2016 the importation, distribution, sale and use of shopping bags, except for those set out in the schedule. Another order, the External Trade (Import Prohibition) Order of 2017 takes a phased approach to banning certain polystyrene items, such as food service containers, utensils and the like. However, airline carriers, private charters and passenger cruise vessels are exempted from these rules. According to news reports, while larger retailers have been generally adhering to the ban, achieving compliance by some small retailers has been more challenging.

Some other Caribbean countries are also contemplating similar measures. In 2017 the Government of Jamaica appointed a multi-stakeholder committee to make recommendations regarding plastic and Styrofoam. A petition has been launched by activists in Trinidad & Tobago for banning plastics.

Market-based approaches 

Market-based approaches have also been used to a limited extent, such as imposing point of sale charges for plastic bags as a disincentive to consumers. In Barbados, for example, a well-known environmental charity lobbied to have retailers charge consumers extra for plastic bags, and to encourage consumers to opt for reusable bags, with some limited success.

Lessons Learnt So far 

  1. Strong enforcement and monitoring are needed to ensure compliance with the regulations. Under the Guyana Regulations, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency is empowered to conduct inspections and investigations to ensure compliance with the ban.
  2. Fines should be high enough to serve as a deterrent to non-compliance. In the US Virgin Islands, businesses found to be in violation are liable to a civil fine of not less than US$500 nor more than US$1,000 for each day of violation.
  3. Fines collected should be allocated towards some kind of environmental fund, environmental or waste management improvement agencies or programmes. Under the US Virgin Islands’ legislation, the monies collected are to be allocated as follows: 75 percent to the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority; and 25 percent to the General Fund of the Treasury of the Virgin Islands.
  4. The penalty for non-compliance is generally fines or a term of imprisonment. However, community service is another option which could be used.
  5. Resistance by consumers and some business owners has delayed the implementation of the bans in some cases. Retailers incur losses from unused stock, and some consumers see the measures as an inconvenience or just another  tax. A phased approach is, therefore, preferable to allow retailers, wholesalers and the like time to get rid of as much of the stock, and shift to more environmentally-friendly products, while also giving the relevant implementing agency and civil society time to educate the public about the importance of the measures to be introduced. A possible option is also the issue of incentives, such as tax waivers for the importation of environmentally-friendly substitutes.
  6. As such, legislative and/or market-based approaches have to be married with strong stakeholder engagement, public education and sensitisation campaigns to change ingrained cultural behaviours and attitudes towards the use and disposal of plastics, to educate the public about the environmental harm caused by marine waste, to encourage public buy-in and to show persons more environmentally-friendly alternatives. To this effect, the Guyana Regulations mandate the Environmental Protection Agency to “offer guidance on, promote and encourage the utilisation of recyclable, biodegradable and other environmentally friendly products as containers, or packaging for food products”. The St. Vincent & the Grenadines Regulations also provide for the same.
  7. On-going monitoring of the impact of these measures is crucial in order to determine their effectiveness and what adjustments are needed in ensure the desired results are being  obtained. This requires conducting an adequate baseline study before the measures are implemented and collecting data on a regular basis.
  8. Besides curbing plastic consumption, another problem is proper waste management. Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for 12% of waste generation by region per year, according to a World Bank publication. According to the publication, “the total amount of waste generated per year in this region is 160 million tonnes, with per capita values ranging from 0.1 to 14 kg/capita/ day, and an average of 1.1 kg/capita/day.” Within this grouping, the largest per capita solid waste generation rates are found in the islands of the Caribbean, the Report notes. As such, encouraging individuals, households and businesses to reduce their waste, recycle and to find more environmentally sustainable ways of managing waste is vital.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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