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Jamaica takes aim at the trash crisis that is ruining paradise

Students taking part in the Bahamas Plastic Movement's summer camp sift sand to document the amount of microplastic present in it.
Students taking part in the Bahamas Plastic Movement's summer camp sift sand to document the amount of microplastic present in it. (Kristal Ambrose/Handout photo)
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KINGSTON, Jamaica — When Neville Hall dives into the waters of Kingston Harbor searching for conch and fish, he sees a lot of black. Black plastic bags waving like seaweed, black sludge coating the ocean floor — the degraded remnants of all sorts of plastic waste. But not as much conch or fish as he used to see when he started fishing in 1979.

Hall knows firsthand the toll that plastics and Styrofoam take on the ocean and the environment at large.

“The pollution kills out the mangroves, and in certain places where you would have pretty sand, mud is there. All different things happen,” Hall said.

Relief from the scourge may be in sight for Jamaica, which is among at least 20 Caribbean and Latin American nations banning — or in discussions to ban — the importation, manufacture and distribution of single-use plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam. As of Jan. 1, those items will be prohibited here, and plastic bottles will eventually be collected for reimbursement and recycled.

Jamaica is one of several island countries that have reached a tipping point about non-biodegradable waste and the daily threat it poses to paradise. It will not be easy. While the struggle to combat waste is not unique to these islands, their geography makes it harder for them than for large land masses, where landfill sites are plentiful and there is less shoreline, in proportion to the total area, on which garbage can wash up.

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Although some logistics have yet to be finalized, Jamaica’s ban was inevitable, according to Daryl Vaz, minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation.

“Based on where the world was going globally, we made a decision. We have very, very serious environmental problems,” he said.

Among those problems, according to Kristal Ambrose, a young Bahamian environmentalist who has launched a campaign against non-biodegradable waste in her country, are the flows of litter clogging drains and the gullies that flood when it rains, the microplastics that end up in the food chain and the waste that endangers wildlife. There is also the problem of aesthetics, especially in a region dependent on tourism.

Tour any Caribbean island, and it becomes apparent that most of their beaches and lush forests are despoiled by plastic bottles, straws, fishing nets, plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. But they are fighting back — following the lead of Rwanda, the first country to ban plastic bags in 2008, and Haiti, which in 2012 became the first in the Caribbean to do so.

“We are finally seeing a shift in momentum,” said Vincent Sweeney, head of the U.N. Environment Caribbean Sub-Regional Office. “The tipping point is an apt description.”

According to the United Nations, the world consumes each year up to 5 trillion plastic bags made from a petroleum-based product that takes 500 years to degrade. A World Bank report found that close to 420,000 tons of plastic waste entered the Caribbean Sea in 2010, with that amount expected to rise to 790,000 tons by 2025.

The management of non-biodegradable waste is a complex system of production and consumption that must be regulated at both ends, says Suzanne Stanley, chief executive of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Key to that is an education campaign about the consequences of littering, targeted at Jamaicans, as well as more specific rules for manufacturers and importers.

“There are cultural behaviors and attitudes about waste that need to be improved on,” Stanley said.

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Ambrose, who is about to complete a master’s degree in marine management and is the founder of the Bahamas Plastic Movement, has succeeded in forcing some of this change in her country. A youth delegation she led in January persuaded the Bahamian Parliament to ban plastics starting in 2020.

The ban is essential, she says, because of the island nation’s multifaceted problem with waste. “We generate waste on land, but we also collect the world’s trash,” she said, referring to the garbage that washes up on most Caribbean beaches.

Even the aesthetic problems associated with waste are costly, she notes, mentioning a 2017 study in the journal Marine Policy that found that for every 15 items of litter a visitor sees, $8 million a year in tourism revenue is lost.

Despite lost revenue and a suffering environment, breaking the plastic and Styrofoam addiction is a challenge. A ban on the substances foundered in Haiti, says David Katz, founder of the Plastic Bank, a nongovernmental organization there that exchanges plastic for money. The reason, he said, was the lack of an affordable alternative.

“The law is not reflected in the waste we see in the environment, and materials are still being brought in over the border from the Dominican Republic,” Katz says. “It is a catastrophe unfolding on a daily basis.”

Another part of the problem in Haiti has been an absence of enforcement and education — a mistake Jamaica’s Vaz says he is determined to avoid.

“There’s going to be a need for increased resources and public education and actual garbage collection,” he said. Fines of up to $15,000 will be instituted for importing and up to $370 for manufacturing, according to Peter Knight, chief executive of the National Environment and Planning Agency in Jamaica.

Other islands are planning to change behavior through taxes. In Dominica, a small, rain-forest-
covered island with a population of almost 73,000, Director of Trade Matthan J. Walter says select plastic items will be banned come Jan. 1, possibly accompanied by a punitive tax on non-
biodegradable items. “So that will change purchase practices,” he said.

Mel Tennant, known in Jamaica as “the turtle man,” reinforces the notion that a change of mind-set is necessary, both among citizens and authorities. Tennant launches tens of thousands of hatchling turtles from a beach on Jamaica’s north coast every year. He sees the devastation caused by waste. “We get a lot of plastic bottles and Styrofoam washed up on the beach. We clean the beach every day,” he said. But he noted that when enough waste receptacles were provided in the tourist town of Ocho Rios, it suddenly became the tidy paradise it should be.

For Hall, the fisherman, the ban cannot come soon enough. For now, his survival depends on a daily game of hide-and-seek for fish and conch that are under constant threat. “I support the ban 100 percent,” he said.

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