A photograph taken last month of three young children staring out to sea from a North Side beach strewn with plastic debris and other garbage brought home to many in Cayman the prevalence of the islands’ plastic pollution problem.
The image, which appeared on the front page of the Cayman Compass and across social media on island, was taken during a beach cleanup – one of many that local residents and grassroots groups have carried out in an effort to combat the growing piles of plastic that have washed up on the once-pristine beaches of the Cayman Islands.
Founder of the Plastic Free Cayman advocacy group, Claire Hughes, says people are “well and truly addicted” to plastic, so the problem is unlikely to go away without significant changes to people’s habits and usage of plastic.
“It isn’t necessarily our fault; it’s convenient, it’s easy and it’s woven into the very fabric of our society,” she said.
At an Ocean Conservancy-led International Coastal Cleanup last year, in which 87 people participated, 1,362 pounds of trash was collected from a 0.9-mile stretch of beach. Of the 6,455 items collected, 3,313 were pieces of plastic waste, with the most common items being plastic straws, bottles and bags.
Volunteers with local environmental groups, such as Plastic Free Cayman and Journey to Zero Waste, can often be found trying to tackle the build-up of plastic that threatens the beauty of the beaches. One such beach cleanup, by Plastic Free Cayman, will be held on Saturday, Feb. 3, at SafeHaven.
Problem facing ‘every coast, sea and ocean’
Other images that caught the public’s attention worldwide emanated from Cayman’s neighbor, Honduras, where a photographer recorded a floating island of plastic trash blanketing the ocean off Roatan in October last year. The garbage had been pushed by prevailing winds through the Caribbean.
Caroline Powers, a Roatan resident who captured these images, said huge amounts of trash continue to enter the oceans. “The [floating trash island] here is tiny compared to the ones in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans,” she noted, adding that ocean trash is a problem facing “every coast, sea and ocean.”
Cayman has made efforts to figure out how much garbage is produced locally.
The Cayman Islands Government commissioned British engineering consultants Amec Foster Wheeler in 2014 to conduct an inquiry into the amount of waste generated in the Cayman Islands. The report found that on average, Grand Cayman produces around 65,000 tons of trash per annum. Government Information Services reported that the government had conducted a secondary analysis at the end of 2016 that revealed that 14 percent of the waste being sent to landfill was plastic, an increase from the 3 percent that was calculated from a similar analysis conducted in 2003.
The government, with Dart Enterprises, has commissioned an integrated solid waste management facility on island. It is estimated that the existing George Town landfill, dubbed “Mount Trashmore” by the residents of Cayman, will reach full capacity by 2021 if the same amount of trash continues to be generated on an annual basis. Through this new waste management strategy, government hopes to reduce the amount of trash being sent to landfill by 95 percent.
Construction of the new facility is scheduled to begin in August this year and to be in operation by 2021, although no contractor has yet been chosen to design, build, finance, operate, or maintain it.
Plastic shopping bags are perhaps the most ubiquitous items of garbage found in landfills.
Separate estimates by the United Nations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the use of plastic bags put figures at between 100 billion and 380 billion for the number consumed every year in the United States alone.
Here in Cayman, Woody Foster, managing director at Foster’s Food Fair IGA, reported that despite a significant drop in the use of plastic bags back in 2010 when a 5-cent charge per bag was introduced, there has been a steady increase in recent years as the impact of the charge has worn off.
According to ConservingNow, a U.S.-based environmentalist group, only one in every 200 plastic bags is reused or recycled. Those that do not make their way to landfill sites can end up in the ocean, where they pose a serious risk to marine life such as turtles, fish and birds that mistake them for food, ultimately suffocating or strangling them.
One type of plastic that often avoids the landfill, making it difficult to measure, is fishing tackle.
Brittany Balli and Aaron Hunt of Cayman Eco Divers recorded an incident late last year near Pageant Beach Reef along Seven Mile Beach where they found a distressed nurse shark hooked to about 150 yards of fishing line. The fishing line had been looped around a coral head multiple times in the shark’s panic to break free from the hook. They were forced to cut the line as close to the shark’s mouth as they could and reported post-dive that they had retrieved armfuls of the plastic line.
Abandoned fishing lines, made with a plastic fiber called monofilament, take an estimated 600 years to eventually break down to plastic microbeads, according to the U.S. Department of Natural Resources.
On Cayman, some bars and restaurants are making efforts to cut back on plastic.
Royal Palms Beach Club, a popular venue for tourists and locals alike along Seven Mile Beach, recently introduced a “green scheme” that hopes to cut back on the amount of plastic the business uses to serve customers. In July last year, Royal Palms began phasing out plastic straws and replacing them with biodegradable paper straws. Other schemes the bar hopes to introduce in the coming months include more environmentally sustainable alternatives to polystyrene packaging and plastic cutlery.
Other restaurants and establishments on island, such as Craft Food & Beverage, Sunset House and Ristorante Pappagallo, are also replacing plastic straws with paper alternatives and looking to ways to reduce plastic use.
On Jan. 11, in Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her Conservative Party’s new environmental strategy to the House of Commons, pledging to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the U.K. by 2042.
Following this, the office of Cayman Islands Governor Helen Kilpatrick, stated the following:
“Her Excellency the Governor wholeheartedly concurs with the UK Prime Minister’s view that plastic is a danger to our environment. Governments, businesses and individuals need to take more responsibility for their environmental impact and this includes reducing the demand for plastic.”
While international efforts by governments, NGOs and corporations are necessary to address the issue, individual efforts are also important, according to Laura Butz, who writes the environmental blog “EcoChicCayman” on Instagram.
“If everyone is constantly relying on the idea of someone else putting in the effort, then nothing ever gets done,” Ms. Butz said. “It isn’t always the easiest option to go green; sometimes you forget to bring your own bags, or you leave your reusable water bottle at home, but you just got to try and remember for the day after or the one after that and it all makes a big difference through the encouragement of change.”