The visibility of plastic pollution along Caribbean coastlines has made the item a hot topic of debate across the region.
Images of floating masses of waste and mangled sea life have captured the attention of environmental advocates and governments in search of solutions.
The United Nations Environment Programme tracks plastics legislation in jurisdictions that border the Caribbean Sea, and periodically updates an online map to include new policies in the region.
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The plastics problem: Cayman contends with a regional menace
To date, UNEP has documented 24 Caribbean jurisdictions with some sort of single-use plastics ban, including restrictions on single-use bags and Styrofoam. In 2020, several Caribbean locations, including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas, will implement bans of varying degrees on single-use plastic imports.
Cayman is listed among 11 jurisdictions in the Caribbean where a plastics ban is ‘in discussion’ by government. Three other locations have bans in discussion by non-governmental organisations.
While single-use plastic bans mark a step forward, they are not enough, UNEP advises. Stakeholders must also look at the larger trends in plastic consumption, imports and production.
“The traditional, linear ‘production, use and disposal’ model for conventional plastics is ecologically unsustainable and has caused adverse and unacceptable environmental harm,” UNEP states.
The World Bank has estimated that Caribbean coastlines are littered with an average of 2,014 items per kilometre, with plastic bottles comprising a fifth of such litter.
UNEP programme officer Christopher Corbin encouraged greater focus on facilitating a ‘circular economy’ to cut down on environmental waste.
“That basically just means trying to ensure that whatever plastic is produced by industry has as much value as possible, which then makes it more friendly for usability or recycling,” he said.
“[It’s about] moving away from generation of single-use material as much as possible and generating or producing plastics that add as much in value as possible or as much recyclability or reusability as possible. … That’s where industry needs to be engaged. If we don’t engage industry, then we are still trying to clean up afterwards rather than focussing on the source of the problem.”
He also encouraged governments to consider incentives for consumers and businesses to pursue non-plastic alternatives.
“The role of governments is creating a sort of enabling environment for consumers, whether it be through concessions, reductions in cost, giving out free [reusable items],” Corbin said.
“Some governments and some NGOs have taken that approach in trying to provide the consumer with, at least initially, alternatives free of cost in terms of reusable bags.”
Jurisdictions must also recognise the importance of collaboration, he added.
Early adopters of plastic-free policies can offer insight to governments that are currently mulling over their own policies. Since plastic and marine pollution respects no borders, Corbin advised islands at least to consider consulting with neighbouring jurisdictions to tackle the problem on a larger level.