Sick and tired of seeing their white sand beaches tainted by garbage, Caribbean nations are at the vanguard of international efforts to eliminate plastic waste.
On April 1, a ban on Styrofoam products will come into force in Guyana. The small island nation of Dominica is working on banning Styrofoam this year, too. And Antigua and Barbuda is hoping to phase out plastic bags by July.
"It is a progressive program that we are on," Antigua and Barbuda Health Minister Molwyn Joseph told teleSUR. "We want to clean up this environment. We want to encourage people to use biodegradable materials for storage and as containers for food and drinks."
The efforts are small in relative terms — the total population of the three island countries is around 900,000 — but they might help curb the 8 million tons of plastic that are estimated to leak into the ocean annually, according to a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation report. Plastic doesn't decompose quickly (Styrofoam can take more than 500 years to breakdown), which means around 150 million tons of plastic are floating in the oceans, the report said.
"Like a stranglehold, Styrofoam latches itself around the neck of the environment, shortening its breath and its cries going fainter with each passing day," said a Guyanese Environmental Protection statement issued in January.
Experts lauded the island nations' efforts, but also warned that they don't rush headlong into banning plastics without considering the host of issues that often accompany the move.
"Every time we reduce an uninvited guest to the environment, it's a good thing," said Christopher Reddy, a marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "But you have to balance that with the alternatives — whether they are better or not — and the reality of whether or not we are going to make difference."
Reddy was especially skeptical of Guyana's attempt to shift to biodegradable materials to replace Styrofoam, including bagasse paper, which is made from sugar cane fiber. Some biodegradable materials take decades to decompose or they might breakdown only under certain conditions, like warm temperatures, he said.
"There is a difference between whether it can biodegrade and whether it will biodegrade," Reddy said. "The difference is huge."
Still, he admitted that Caribbean countries were correct to try to cut plastic from their economy and waste streams.
"Certainly just reducing their usage is a good idea," Reddy said. "These island nations have to have clean beaches."
It's not clear if Caribbean governments have the wherewithal to enforce their bans, however.
Leaders in Haiti, where the state holds a tenuous grasp on authority, twice passed plastic bans a few years ago. But they have yet to make a dent on the plastic pollution that is piling up in the impoverished country. "Garbage — organic, plastic, construction materials, everything — strewn by the side of the road," wrote activist Barbara Rhine recently in Counterpunch after visiting Haiti. "No way of handling refuse in a healthy manner — there seems to me to be no effective government at all right now in Haiti."
Guyana instituted its ban on January 1. But opposition from restaurants, importers, and others businesses convinced the government to postpone the ban until April as they used up their inventories of plastic containers. The country is considering lowering tariffs on materials that businesses might import to replace Styrofoam to lessen their costs.
Biodegradable alternatives cost more because of a government import tax, claimed restaurateurs in Guyana, who said they would try to follow the ban, but didn't want to go out of business.
"What is the government willing to give in exchange?" Francis Bristol, a deli owner in Georgetown, told the Guyana Chronicle. "If you are going to take something from the people, you must be able to give something in return, and for me the answer is a waiver on the taxes."
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