Not long ago, a unilateral decision was taken throughout Massy Stores in St Lucia to ban the merchandizing of plastic to grocers. This was hailed as a significant step forward in reducing the global plastic pollution in our little corner of the planet. This trend which started with Antigua in June of 2016, reignites the decade old debate of plastic pollution- a move which excites die hard environmentalists. Dominica, Belize, Bahamas and Bermuda have all passed or are drafting laws to eradicate single-use plastics, styrofoams and other polycarbonate compounds commonly used in the food and beverage industry.
Plastics are polymers of hydrocarbons derived from crude and refined petroleum. Polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene are common examples of plastics. Plastics are also laced with chemicals to improve flexibility or durability. As the plastic degrades these chemical compounds can be slowly released into the natural environment. Generally, the degradability of most plastics is extremely slow meaning they remain in the environment for several hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Microplastics (less than or equal to 5mm in length) are the most prevalent form of plastics. They persist in soil, water, air and food webs. One common type of microplastics-microbeads are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic added as exfoliants to health and beauty products such as some cleansers and toothpastes. These tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean posing a potential threat to marine life. Microbeads are not a recent problem. According to UNEP, plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about 50 years ago and has since become increasingly prevalent replacing natural ingredients in common beauty products. As recent as 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with an abundance of products containing microbeads.
Public concern about microplastics gained momentum a few years ago due to their potential health effects on humans and ecosystems functionality. Although there are major knowledge gaps, it is becoming increasingly evident that human exposure to microplastics occur from consumption of seafood and terrestrial food products, drinking water and inhalation of air containing micro-plastic contaminants. However, the level of human exposure, chronic toxic effect concentrations and underlying toxicological mechanisms by which microplastics elicit health problems are still poorly understood to make a full assessment of the risk to humans.
It is estimated that several tonnes of plastic enter the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean as a result of human actions. This is likely to increase with consumerism and demand for package foods, fast food chains and poor consumer habits. In recent months, many coastal areas in the Dominican Republic for example, have been awashed with plastic debris. A study by the Inter-American Development Bank concluded that of the 10,000 tons of plastic used daily in the Dominican Republic, only 2400 tonnes are recovered (http://ic-sd.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/01/Brinton.pdf). Data on plastic use and recycling is generally lacking for Caribbean states but it is believed plastic recycling is dismally low for rest of the region. So then, what can we do about the plastic pollution? Are there viable alternatives to plastic use? How can we effect behavioral change to reduce plastic use?
With my ears tuned to the ground, I have been hearing two clear echoes-those who advocate for and support the outright ban of plastics and those who continue to favour plastic use. For the pro ban group, the arguments are simple and straight forward. They contend that (i) plastic are a nuisance to the natural environment (ii) plastics have low degradability (iii) micro plastic are linked to health problems in human and possibly, cancers (iv) plastics kill marine mammals and several other animals when ingested mistakenly as food.
On the contrary, those who are less vociferous argue that human societies will always need plastics to preserve the storage life of foods, keeping foods out of contact with microbes, ease of transportation and such like. Any ban of plastic, they argue, will likely hurt consumers disproportionately while producers and supermarket chain establishments keep the use of the plastic for packaging. A ban of plastic on the consumer end will likely do little to reduce pollution. Any ban they argue, must be based on fairness and it must be a collective human responsibility.
While the evidence and support for banning of plastic is clearer than ever, the approach, spontaneity and intent is enveloped in sheer hypocrisy. Simply, who benefits? Who determine what grade of plastic that is needed for everyday consumer use? Who caps the amount of plastic produced? Who directs how much of the profit made from plastic sales go towards supporting recycling and clean up? Creating the alternative to plastic- the shopping bags sold to consumers at the point of sale instead of plastics- are also nylon-based fabrics, logo branded, and expensive. It feels like one mass advertisement and promotion of the business that is intended to brand the food store, instead of addressing the real plastic pollution issue. One disgruntled consumer told me, I hate plastics and I also hate the logo branded bags. There are hundreds, if not thousands of silent customers like him, whose views never reach the mainstream media. They too have a point.
A more level-headed approach to deal with this issue involves strategies to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics. As one advocate remarked-there is promise in plastic. So, what are the options?
First, there has been no sustained educational campaign to change the use pattern and disposal of plastics. Most efforts are isolated, driven by sensationalism of the mainstream media and often lack the scientific basis and context. The solution to this plastic pandemic may very well lie in reshaping culture, attitudes and norms to get people to dispose of plastic properly or reducing the amount of plastics they consume. This could very well be more effective than an outright ban that is devoid of educational programmes and involvement of end users
Second, the technology to reuse and recycle plastic has not evolved on par with production of plastics, at least not in the Caribbean. The first plastic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt who discovered plastic could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural substances. Production of plastic is nearly universal yet empowering communities or private entrepreneurs to set up recycling facilities is practically non-existent in the region. An active recycling programme would likely be instrumental in reducing plastic pollution. Plastic recycling technologies should not be for human monetary profits but instead focus on reducing waste plastic in the environment.
Third, there is a general lack of incentive to fast track biodegradable plastic technologies, or to permanently remove them from the natural environment such as their use in the construction of roads, furniture etc. There is enough potholes on Caribbean roads where pelletized plastic mixed with bitumen – a practice that would remove several tones of plastic from the environment annually. Affordable biodegradable plastics would significantly reduce the plastic waste and their persistence in the environment
Fourth, the cost of plastic has remained nominal far too long making it attractive packaging material to supermarkets establishments. Higher prices are always a disincentive to users and a push for alternatives. New energies are needed in this direction. Perhaps government can explore a plastic tax and cap on the amount of plastic imported in a country
Fifth, what about the legislation and regulation? There is not much enforcement on the ground. Presently, no legislation control production or hold businesses or consumers liable for indiscriminate dumping of plastic. Charges, if enforced, are not huge enough to become a deterrent. The region needs a comprehensive, updated legislation on plastic use with enforcement mechanisms across jurisdictions
Until we shift focus as a society and tackle these issues head-on, we are unlikely to make any significant progress anytime soon. A ban on plastic use without a viable alternative can adversely impact sales and customer behavior- the two biggest drivers of plastic production. Control use of plastic that are thinner, biodegradable, and more widespread support from the general public, is likely.