Managing our Solid Waste: Solutions to the Problem of Plastics and Styrofoam

Now is the time for action!

Two years ago I went on a boat tour with JET, prior to the annual beach clean-up. We were filled with horror. Kingston Harbour is literally clogged with garbage - mainly plastic - for miles. (My photo)
Two years ago I went on a boat tour with JET, prior to the annual beach clean-up. We were filled with horror. Kingston Harbour, including the mangroves, is literally clogged with garbage – mainly plastic – for miles. (My photo)

We are all gradually (finally) becoming aware of a tidal wave of plastic and styrofoam that threatens to overwhelm the island – although some of us have been writing about it for years. We have been talking about it for years, too. Recycling efforts have come and gone with varying degrees of success. But at last, it seems, some people (even, perhaps, within the new political administration) are listening.  While the current recycling project is still a work in progress,  the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has come up with a practical list of steps that can be taken to reduce the amount of plastic and styrofoam that is choking our gullies and drains, filling up our seas (adding to the “plastic soup” that our marine life is now ingesting) and providing excellent breeding sites for the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Apart from anything else, it’s a public health menace.

Since most of our plastic ends up in the sea, it’s not encouraging (or surprising) to know that by 2050 it is predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea, by pound weight. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean. A million sea birds and 100,000 animals such as whales, dolphins, turtles and seals die from plastic bags and other waste each year. It’s a tragedy.

Our 2014 tour of Kingston Harbour ended with a visit to a piece of land apparently owned by the Airports Authority of Jamaica, behind Norman Manley International Airport, where yards and yards of plastic and other garbage lined the waterside. What is worse, we were choking because of the (illegal) burning of garbage on the site. (My photo)
Our 2014 tour of Kingston Harbour ended with a visit to a piece of land apparently owned by the Airports Authority of Jamaica, behind Norman Manley International Airport, where yards and yards of plastic and other garbage lined the waterside (this is not the worst photo). Moreover, we were choking because of the (illegal) burning of garbage on the site. (My photo)

Nevertheless, we are encouraged by young Senator Matthew Samuda’s stated intention to file a private member’s motion to implement a ban on the importation of plastic bags and styrofoam. That’s a start, although seventy per cent of our styrofoam boxes are actually manufactured in Jamaica; but as I have noted before, manufacturers need to come up with alternatives. That is what creating a green economy is all about – making changes, finding alternatives.

Local firms Island Grill and National Bakery, with their eco-friendly packaging, have been successful at this. Pricesmart has not used plastic “scandal bags” for quite a long time; we use their large shopping bag made of recycled material. We just need to put our minds to it. No more “if’s” and “but’s”! It is good to note also that Chair of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) Danville Walker supports Senator Samuda’s goals and plans to hold talks with importers and producters.

I also applaud the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) for its “No Styrofoam Day” on Earth Day (I am so happy to see this day more widely recognized than it was a few years ago, when only JET paid attention to it).

You can find JET’s full document, Regulating Plastic Waste in Jamaica: Time to Act here: http://www.jamentrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Regulating-Plastic-Waste-in-Jamaica-Time-To-Act-May-2016.pdf The non-governmental organization has remained fully focused on this issue for a long while now. Through its Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica campaign, with funding from the Tourism Enhancement Fund under the Tourism Ministry’s Clean Coasts Project, and ongoing beach clean-ups, it has almost single-handedly kept the problem of solid waste firmly in people’s minds. I have written about this many times – most recently here, emphasizing the need for the private sector to come fully on boardhttp://gleanerblogs.com/socialimpact/?p=3234

Urban areas are not the only places that suffer from the scourge of solid waste. In beautiful Hector's River, Portland, I found several large plastic bags of garbage dumped at the top of the cliffs. (My photo)
Urban areas are not the only places that suffer from the scourge of solid waste. In beautiful Hector’s River, Portland, I found several large plastic bags of garbage dumped at the top of the cliffs. (My photo)

In its document, JET points out – astonishingly – to a report funded by the United Nations Development Program and Government of Jamaica, dated March 2011 (yes, over five years ago). It was executed by the Planning Institute of Jamaica and NRCA. The Short-Term Strategy for the Management of Plastic Packaging Material in Jamaica was thorough – evaluating the Recycle for Life program (now defunct); assessing potential markets for recycled plastic; consulting with a range of stakeholders; reviewing laws and regulations, and so on. Among other things, the study recommended a deposit and refund scheme for PET items, which then made up over half of the packaging materials. It did not recommend any actions on styrofoam or plastic bags.

But…BUT. The Government did not follow the study’s recommendations. Instead, in June 2003 it set up an environmental protection levy on packaging that was supposed to be plowed back into recycling. This caused the almost overnight demise of Recycle for Life. Only in December 2014 did a new private/public sector organization, Recycling Partners of Jamaica, set up shop. I have written about them before, and I plan to publish a list of recycling depots on the island in this blog. But we need far more of them, and a much wider and deeper recycling program. Nevertheless, it is there; it just needs to be greatly expanded.

Collecting plastic bottles in New York City. (Photo: ediblegeography.com)
Collecting plastic bottles in New York City. (Photo: ediblegeography.com)

Against this background, JET is recommending (as the 2011 report did) a deposit and refund scheme for PET bottles, the main offenders. This would also provide some income to small operators who would collect them. I remember seeing people in San Francisco in every public place, diligently collecting plastic bottles in huge bags on their backs. I will never forget one rather elderly Chinese lady who got on the bus with her huge bag, to mild protests from passengers. But she told us – that bag is part of her livelihood!

JET also recommends a complete ban on styrofoam within the next three years, with a transition period for users and manufacturers to switch to biodegradable materials. The environmental levy should also be used to support Recycling Partners, since the value of plastic has declined along with oil prices.

On a trip in Clarendon a few months ago, I noted a large area of those scrubby thorn bushes that thrive in dry places. The bushes were “flowering” with small pieces of ripped black plastic “scandal” bags, decorating every branch. It was a depressing sight. JET is recommending that stores charge a fee for plastic bags. This will greatly reduce their use, as it has in other countries. In the Caribbean, Haiti has already implemented a ban on plastic bags, in 2012. Antigua is working to implement an announced ban due to come into effect this year. Puerto Rico’s ban on plastic bags should also be effective this year. Since 2010 the Cayman Islands has implemented a fee and stores offer biodegradable plastic bags as alternatives; the program has been very effective, I understand.

There's an interactive, very detailed map of countries that have banned plastic bags here: http://www.factorydirectpromos.com/plastic-bag-bans
There’s an interactive, very detailed map of countries that have banned plastic bags here: http://www.factorydirectpromos.com/plastic-bag-bans

As I write, I know that just down my street in salubrious uptown Kingston, styrofoam boxes and plastic bottles are among the scattered pieces of garbage, thrown out of windows by cab drivers, SUV drivers and passers by, who are simply too lazy to keep their garbage in a bag and dispose of it properly at home or in a bin. At another spot, cab drivers stop to eat their lunch and think nothing of throwing their styrofoam lunch box and plastic drinks bottle out onto a growing garbage dump, right outside someone’s home. I lectured a cab driver just yesterday on the subject, but he was not guilty – he showed me the plastic bag he keeps under his seat, that he keeps his garbage in for disposal later. Cool! I said. It’s true to say though that whatever measures are put in place, public education is badly needed.

Meanwhile, supermarkets continue to package even fruit and vegetables on styrofoam trays (why is this even necessary?) They put almost every item in a separate plastic bag, and some inside two or three bags. This wastefulness and carelessness cannot continue, or we will be drowning in plastic and styrofoam.

So, let’s get going and take action now. Individuals, government and the private sector must play a part.

JET celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
JET celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

4 thoughts on “Managing our Solid Waste: Solutions to the Problem of Plastics and Styrofoam

  1. Regarding Recycle for Life plastic bottle collection, one reason why it was so expensive that they paid trucks to carry bottles of air from all over Jamaica. That in itself was anti-environmental with trucks burning up gas. It would have been much better to grind the bottles at locations around the island, and also to identify trucks already going into Kingston, to carry plastic without air. BTW, the closure was in 2003, not 2007.

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    1. Yes, you are right – it closed in 2003. I will correct that. Your comments just highlight the cost and complexities of recycling in Jamaica. Machines to grind bottles cost a lot of money and also cost money to run! Now if we could only find an investor to set up a plastic recycling factory… I am going to publish a list of collection points, but there are several across the island now.

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  2. Dear Helen,
    You have great ideas.
    Jamaican with twenty years experience in plastics recycling and repurposing plastic.
    -experience to know how to make it work
    -laboratory support analysis
    -proprietary formulations
    -new exclusive technologies
    -global marketing knowledge
    Serious call me.
    Richard Phillips
    519-472-2559

    Like

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