As Earth Day approaches, the Caribbean continues its struggle with a tidal wave of plastic, but remains hopeful

Members of Jamaica's Greenwich Town Fisherfolk Benevolent Society were instrumental in removing waste floating on the water’s surface during The Kingston Harbour Cleanup Project’s beach cleanup on April 1, 2023. Photo by Khristina Godfrey, used with permission.

Are we living on a plastic planet? In the Caribbean, the problem often seems overwhelming: gullies choked with plastic, tourism beauty spots littered with trash, informal garbage dumps appearing on urban sidewalks, plastic washing up on beaches, and complaints about inadequate garbage disposal and collection.

Under the surface, divers encounter their fair share of plastic, performing regular underwater cleanups, via programmes such as Curaçao’s Dive Against Debris. Marine life of all kinds is affected, including seabirds, which scientists say are suffering from plasticosis.

A blanket of plastics and other waste envelops the coastline adjacent to Shoemaker Gully, before Kingston Harbour Cleanup Project volunteers began their cleanup on Saturday, April 1, 2023. Photo by Khristina Godfrey, used with permission.

Additionally, plastic waste is often blamed for exacerbating the effects of flooding during the rainy season, in regional territories likes Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, contributing to natural disasters. The current and future impact on tourism — another source of plastic waste — and other marine-related activities is almost incalculable. Recent reports have noted the escalating scale of the problem for both coastal communities and island economies.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, about 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally every year, with the rate of plastic production accelerating since the 1970s. The statistics are disturbing:

Approximately 36 per cent of all plastics produced are used in packaging, including single-use plastic products for food and beverage containers, approximately 85 percent of which end up in landfills or as unregulated waste.

Additionally, some 98 percent of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuel, or “virgin” feedstock. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19 percent of the global carbon budget by 2040.

While the statistics are alarming, strenuous efforts are being made, both globally and within the Caribbean, to stem the tide of plastic.

In March 2022, the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi agreed to work towards a global UN Plastics Treaty and to forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. Some key issues remain to be resolved when negotiators meet again in Paris, France from May 29 to June 2, 2023. Environmental organisations such as Greenpeace are hoping for a strong agreement to emerge, with two priorities:

An immediate cap on virgin plastic production to 2017 levels, followed by significant, annually increasing reductions in the production and use of plastic.
An end to single-use plastics, starting with the most unnecessary and harmful.

Globally, NGOs are doing their best to raise awareness and find creative solutions. Lonely Whale, for example, partnered with fashion designer Tom Ford to award the TOM FORD Plastic Innovation Prize, targeting a specific type of plastic (traditional thin-film plastic polybags) and seeking sustainable alternatives. Winners were announced last month.

Despite the gloomy picture, it is fair to say that the Caribbean is also fighting back against plastic, and is finding that in this effort partnerships are effective.

While on a project tour, students from St. Aloysius Primary School watch attentively as the Interceptor Tender brings waste to the Kingston Harbour Cleanup Project’s Offloading Site. Photo by Gareth Cobran, used with permission.

One noteworthy example is the Kingston Harbour Cleanup Project (KHCP), a partnership between the high-profile global NGO Ocean Cleanup, Jamaica's Grace Kennedy Foundation, and Clean Harbours Jamaica. The initiative has attracted many local supporters, including non-profits and the business sector. As the project to install four waste-trapping barriers — where gullies drain into the eighth largest natural harbour in the world — continues, The Ocean Cleanup applauded these efforts on Twitter:

The KHCP, which includes participation by members in four downtown communities, says it has prevented 213,980 kilograms of waste from entering the harbour between February 2022 and March 2023. CEO of the GraceKennedy Foundation, Caroline Mahfood, told Global Voices in an email:

The Harbour is undoubtedly a vital natural resource. This project is all about working together with the private and public sector, NGOs and community members, to reduce the pollution of the Harbour and create a healthier environment for the wildlife and people that depend on it. We hope that our efforts here will not only contribute to a healthier Harbour, but also pave the way for a sustainable future that benefits generations to come.

Plastic bans by some Caribbean governments on some types of plastics are already in place. A ban on single-use plastic bags, straws and polystyrene took effect in Jamaica on January 1, 2019, and the minister responsible said recently that a further ban on products containing microbeads, as well as the ubiquitous plastic food containers that have replaced styrofoam, is under consideration in the coming year. Antigua and Barbuda also have a similar plan in place, and other Caribbean nations have slowly come on board with bans. Concerns about microplastics persist, however, and the picture is incomplete.

Despite concerns that most of the world's plastic, in the US for example, may not be fully recyclable, Caribbean countries continue to press ahead with ongoing recycling programmes, offering money for bottles handed in. A pilot project in Trinidad and Tobago aims to recycle 20 percent of its plastic bottles by 2025. Recycling Partners of Jamaica collected 125 million bottles (six million pounds or 2.7 million kilograms) in 2022 and is greatly expanding its reach, including collection capacity, this year. The organisation has said that its depots are “overwhelmed” with bottles and that it is observing a great enthusiasm among citizens to participate.

Meanwhile, Jamaica Environment Trust continues its community-based efforts to improve waste management in general. Its 2023 Earth Day beach cleanup, which will focus on Kingston Harbour, is already oversubscribed.

While the task of reducing plastic pollution is daunting, especially for the small islands of the Caribbean, it appears that citizens are increasingly up to the challenge. As Earth Day approaches, perhaps the tide may be turning.

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