The plastics problem: Cayman contends with a regional menace

The concept of the remote, tropical beach is one that has long captured travellers’ imaginations.

And in Cayman, the possibility of discovering a secluded, sandy beach isn’t so far-fetched – at least for those willing to venture off the beaten path.

But escaping signs of humanity isn’t so easy.

At the opening of a rocky trail in East End, a hand-painted sign points the way to Barefoot Beach, a hidden cove far from the main tourist drag.

As the path gives way to sand, however, the fantasy of an uninhabited slice of paradise quickly dissipates.

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With or without the crowds, the Caribbean’s waste-management problem reveals its ugly face. Tangled in seagrass, hundreds of plastic bottles crowd the beach.

A couple visiting from Colorado assesses the damage and decides to head back to their car. There’s nowhere on the sand for them to sit anyway.

Across the Caribbean, plastic waste threatens not just beach aesthetics and the tourist experience. It poses a risk to public and environmental health as well. Discarded fishing line entangles sea turtles and sharks. Bits of plastic supplement brown-footed booby nests. Microplastics sneak into the food chain.

Microplastics and plastics littering the beach behind Lovers Wall in East End. – Photo: Submitted

A 2019 World Bank analysis of the region found Caribbean beaches and coastlines were littered with more than 2,000 items per kilometre, well above the global average of 573. Plastics, including single-use bottles and foam containers, were among the main culprits.

As the Caribbean grapples with appropriate response measures, the Cayman Islands lags behind. Twenty-four Caribbean and Central American jurisdictions have already implemented some sort of plastics ban, including restrictions on single-use plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

The Cayman Islands remains in the discussion phase alongside 10 other locations, including the British Virgin Islands and St. Kitts.

For environmental activists, a single-use plastics ban, currently under consideration by a steering committee of community and government stakeholders, would be just the beginning.

Read related stories:
Plastic pollution entangles marine life
Caribbean governments legislate to restrict plastics

The visibility of plastic – in a very literal sense, due to its resistance to degradation – has made the item an easy symbol of larger waste management issues in the region.

“What you’re seeing with the increase in single-use packaging and increased importation is an increase in the percentage now of plastic material that’s finding itself in the environment,” explained Christopher Corbin, a UNEP programme manager in Jamaica.

“Some countries now are reporting as high as 25 or 30% of the domestic waste stream being plastics and a lot of this being single-use.”

Plastics littering beaches are just a symptom of a bigger problem, Corbin explained. Illegal dumping, insufficient recycling programmes and reliance on imports have exacerbated the region’s plastic problem.

“You may find waste that’s originating from the outflow of the Amazon or the Orinoco working its way up the Eastern Caribbean or from the Mississippi River working its way through the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

The interconnected nature of the Caribbean Sea means that one island’s trash is, well, another island’s trash too.

Recycling in Cayman

At the George Town landfill, a group of about 10 workers sort through items deposited at Department of Environmental Health recycling points. Seven DEH locations, mostly outside of grocery stores, offer bins to sort aluminium and tin cans, glass bottles and jars, corrugated cardboard, and type one and type two plastics.

While items like soda cans and glass jars may be simple for most consumers to sort, plastics are more elusive.

In Cayman, only two types of plastics can be recycled – type one, including water and soda bottles, and type two, including milk jugs and shampoo bottles. Items that fall under these categories are marked with a recycling symbol, labelled either one or two.

Click to enlarge. – Image: Compass Media

But the market abounds with many more types of plastics. There are tote bags, shoes and flooring made out of type three plastic. There are sandwich bags, clingwrap and single-use grocery sacks made out of type four.

By the time the categories reach type seven, products are lumped together as ‘other’ or miscellaneous.

None of these plastics can be recycled in Cayman, nor can plastics labelled ‘compostable’, which require industrial facilities that Cayman still lacks.

“That’s the problem with plastics,” said Mike Hawthorn, assistant director of solid waste at DEH.

“There’s so many different types. We’re here working hard to sort the problem out at the end.”

In an ideal world, there would be fewer types of plastics on the market, Hawthorn said, but for now, Cayman’s recycling programme relies on manual sorting to differentiate among plastic categories.

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Processing plastics collected from DEH depots requires several hours of work from DEH workers, multiple times per week.

One recycling facility employee, Karen Ebanks, estimated that sometimes up to half of plastic collected at DEH depots ends up being non-recyclables that are redirected to the landfill.

It’s not just plastic type that can disqualify an item from being recycled, baled and shipped to buyers in the US. Dirty items can’t be recycled either. A milk jug with residue, for example, will be tossed, despite its otherwise recyclable material.

Workers have found everything from half-eaten lunches to decomposing animals in recycling bins – contaminants that can spoil the haul.

To make the job of DEH employees a bit easier, recycling worker Michael Brown advised consumers take time to educate themselves about the items that can be recycled.

“It’s mostly water bottles and soda bottles, milk jugs, and laundry detergent that make up a bulk of the items,” he said.

Shoppers can make more conscientious decisions by turning items over at the store and identifying the type of plastic indicated on the packaging.

While most plastic ice cream containers, for example, are non-recyclable, Brown said there

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are some brands that use recyclable material.

“You can choose from the store whether you are going to recycle or not by looking at the stuff. Just buy the ice cream that’s type one or type two,” he said.

All items intended for recycling should be given a rinse first, to remove any residue and to ensure it’s not tossed to the landfill.

“What I do is I just fill the jug up with water, give it a shake and give it a rinse and it’s done,” Hawthorn said.

“You could imagine if you multiply all the milk bottles on the island together and they’re all contaminated, you’re going to have a lot of this material, which ultimately is not good for the recycling process.”

Improving consumer habits

While the plastic recycling requirements can be onerous, the amount of plastics recycled in Cayman has grown in recent years.

In 2017, a total of 54 tons of recycled plastics were processed by DEH. That number grew to 78 tons in 2018 and 85 tons in 2019.

The numbers pale in comparison to the total waste collected annually by DEH from residential and commercial sources. In 2018, DEH collected 50,079 tons of trash, up from 30,587 tons five years prior.

A large amount of the landfill waste includes plastics, according to the 2016 National Solid Waste Strategy.

“Empirical observations on the landfill sites and elsewhere suggested the waste being disposed of contains a considerable proportion of plastic packaging and materials,” the report states.

For activists like Linda Clark with Plastic Free Cayman, the bigger issue stems from consumer, business and government practices that encourage waste.

“A big education campaign around helping people separate their garbage before it goes to the landfill would be really paramount in helping to reduce the problem,” she said.

“We also have a lot of organic waste going to the landfills. I think everyone on the island can appreciate Mount Trashmore is a big problem and we have to think about that in terms of our community health, our impression for tourism and the long-term impact on who we are passing this problem onto.”

Through her work with Plastic Free Cayman, she encourages public awareness of the plastics problem. That includes promoting the 345 Pledge to reduce personal consumption of plastics, and participation in beach cleanups to clear waste that washes ashore.

While plastics that wash up in Cayman often have clear indications they originated from elsewhere – labels in French or Spanish, for example – Clark says residents should remember that waste improperly dumped in Cayman is also washing ashore on someone else’s beaches.

Christopher Corbin of the United Nations Environment Programme points to the island of Roatan as a prime example of cross-border plastics contamination.

The World Bank described a “shocking sea of plastic” floating near the island in 2017.

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“A mass of floating trash at least eight kilometers wide and several kilometers long was found off the coast of Honduras, apparently caused by heavy rains and discharge from rivers,” a World Bank report states.

Much of that plastic originated in Guatemala and flowed down river until it discharged into the Caribbean Sea. About 75 to 80% of the plastic in the Caribbean originates from land-based sources, as the result of poor waste management practices, illegal littering and dumping, Corbin said.

Engaging stakeholders

With the flow of plastics, it can be difficult to draw borders.

In the case of microplastics – essentially small bits of broken-down plastic – the cross-border problem is even worse.

“When you have an issue like microplastics, you’re now talking not just regional, but you’re talking the potential of material coming from Africa,” Corbin said.

The Department of Environment has completed a preliminary analysis of microplastics on Cayman’s beaches with support from the University of Exeter.

The results are still being analysed but researchers have determined that microplastics are present in the sand on all three islands, according to a department spokesperson.

The seemingly ubiquitous nature of plastics in the region points to the need for bilateral cooperation, Corbin said.

Cases like that of Roatan demonstrate that jurisdictions cannot solve their plastic waste problems in isolation.

“That’s why it’s important that there’s also good representation from the Caribbean at some of these international events and international meetings. And I believe that’s also the basis for why some governments … are considering or making proposals for establishing an international agreement or international convention that looks at the issue of plastics.”

By collaborating, jurisdictions can build on lessons learned elsewhere and form stronger polices, he added.

In that sense, arriving late to the game could be a benefit for Cayman.

“What we should really encourage now, in particular as Cayman is going down this road as well, is really to learn from some of the ones who did it first. What are some of the lessons learned and what are some of challenges they’ve had?” Corbin said.

For now, Cayman remains in the steering committee phase. The group, tasked with navigating a single-use plastics policy, includes representatives from business, including the Chamber of Commerce and local supermarkets, and government, including the Ministry of Environment and the Ministy of Environmental Health.

Clark said that while Plastic Free Cayman has been invited to participate, the steering committee lacks clear direction.

“To date, we don’t have any guidelines on what the steering committee is trying to achieve, any timelines or why certain stakeholders were included in the meetings,” Clark said.

Others remain more positive about the committee. Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie said she is optimistic stakeholders can achieve a long-anticipated plastics policy.

She recalled the successful efforts of community groups years ago in implementing a fee for single-use plastic bags – a small step towards the greater goal.

“We got everybody together and we ultimately agreed that we would try to tackle single-use plastic bags and we started off … thinking we could get a ban. That didn’t quite work out, but what we got was an agreement from all of the participating supermarkets to charge for plastic bags,” she said.

“Now I’m hoping that this new initiative that’s being put forward by the Ministry of Environment and Environmental Health can … move our commitment even further along to hopefully achieving a complete ban this time around.”

Minister of Environment Dwayne Seymour did not respond to request for comment on the plastics steering committee.

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  1. Cayman has had plastic/ pollution problem for decades now. Not only unsightly but detrimental. And no recycle program that was obviously necessary 20 years ago.
    The health and beauty of environmental attractions like coral reefs, mangrove ecosystems, beaches that are vital to their economy, lifestyle and wildlife,as on all islands, are in jeopady if they do not heed to being more conscientious and proactive of the waste they produce. Hope they are finally serious about making efforts to reduce and recycle for their islands, for the ocean, for the planet!