The Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica beach cleanup points to the need for greater public education

During the Jamaica Environment Trust’s 2023 Earth Day cleanup at Sirgany Beach, CEO of ScotiaBank Jamaica Audrey Tugwell Henry pledged to reduce the amount of garbage she produces. Photo by the Jamaica Environment Trust, used with permission.

A version of the post first appeared at Petchary's Blog; an expanded adaptation appears below.

When plastic degrades in the hot sun, and in the sea, which is often the case on beaches region-wide, it emits considerable amounts of methane, a greenhouse that exacerbates the negative impact of the climate crisis on Small Island Developing States (SIDS). In the Caribbean, beach and community clean-ups and plastic collections are fairly regular occurrences. Though they do help to reduce the amount of plastic on beaches and raise the level of environmental consciousness, they never seem to be enough.

On beaches where every inch is covered with (mostly plastic) trash, the scale of the problem sinks in. Beach clean-ups can spur participants to greater awareness and action. The Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica beach cleanup, which took place around Earth Day, was proof positive that Jamaicans are taking action against these harmful plastics. In addition to this initiative, there are many other ongoing efforts and programmes, like the Kingston Harbour Cleanup Project, a partnership with The Ocean Cleanup that is forging ahead determinedly.

Efforts like these have been buoyed by Jamaica's de facto environment and climate change minister Matthew Samuda, who piloted legislation in parliament for the banning of imported plastic bags (which still mysteriously turn up from time to time at cook shops and street vendor stalls), as well as plastic straws and polystyrene. However, the polystyrene has been replaced with a kind of plastic that is not recyclable, and the local market has been inundated with plastic lunchboxes and cutlery.

Back in March, Minister Samuda announced that this would be addressed in the 2023/24 financial year, and that the widening of the plastics ban would extend to certain types of microplastics contained in some personal care products such as toothpaste, facial scrubs, and soaps. These types of products are already banned in the United States.

In the interim, communities and NGOs do what they can. The Jamaica Environment Trust‘s (JET) Earth Day Beach Cleanup took place at Sirgany Beach in East Kingston. It was done as part of the United Nations Development Programme‘s (UNDP) project “Increasing Awareness on the Impacts of Improper Solid Waste Disposal on Public Health, Livelihoods, and the Marine Environment,” which builds on elements of JET’s well-known “Nuh Dutty up Jamaica” public education campaign. About 150 volunteers removed a total of 413 bags of garbage, weighing approximately 4,100 pounds (approximately 1,860 kg). Their haul was dominated by single-use plastics.

Minister Samuda, who participated in the cleanup, applauded JET's efforts and said he was “heartened to see so many citizens participate.” At the same time, he was distressed to see the volume of garbage on the beach, saying, “We will have to redouble our efforts to reduce our litter and protect our marine environment.”

JET’s Programme Director Lauren Creary added, “It was great to see the turnout, but unfortunately, there is still a disconnect between these cleanups and personal action and responsibility. Investing in our planet has to go beyond participating in a beach cleanup, which is why volunteers were also encouraged to make a pledge to either reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, and bag it an’ bin it [to] ‘not dutty up Jamaica.'”

Over the next few months, under the UNDP project, the JET team will continue to mobilise community groups across the island, supporting smaller community cleanups and hosting three road tours in the areas of Kingston, Portmore and Montego Bay.

To even try to make a dent in the negative impact of plastic pollution in the region though, more Caribbean nations may well have to implement an outright ban on single-use plastics. Despite promises that seven regional territories made about instituting such a ban on January 1, 2020, implementation has been complicated and single-use plastics continue to be used, unless — as is the case with the newly reopened Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad — eco-conscious businesses decide to implement such bans of their own accord.

In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, the ban was specifically intended to cover the import of expanded polysystrene — specifically cups, plates and food containers known locally as “clam shells” — but the legislation is still being finalised. The initiative is also not Caribbean Community (CARICOM)-driven, and without a regional plastics policy in place, each individual territory is figuring out its own ways to best tackle the issue.

There is, however, an international regime, called the INC 2, being negotiated through the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), aimed at ending the “global scourge” of plastic pollution. As many as 175 nations endorsed what is being called an “historic” resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi on March 2, 2022. By the end of 2024, the resolution is intended to forge an international, legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution.

The Second Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution is carded to take place in Paris, France from May 29-June 2, 2023.

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