I made my way to the back of the ever-expanding University of Technology (UTech) campus recently. Many thanks to the student who set me on the right path – I was truly lost. There was a row of brand new lecture halls. I was heading for a public forum organized by the UTech branch of G2K, the young professionals’ arm of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The entrance was dotted with enthusiastic young women in bright green polo shirts. This was GenTech.
In fact, there was green everywhere. That is the JLP’s party colour. However, this was not a political rally – although someone at some point suggested that environmental issues were, in fact, political issues these days (not party political, but in the broader sense).
The event was “green” in more ways than one, because we were discussing the quite recently announced ban on certain plastics, to come into effect beginning January 1, 2019.
The three speakers sitting at the green table were Suzanne Stanley, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), Howard Mitchell, the outspoken President of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ), and Senator Matthew Samuda. The latter is a former head of G2K, so his presence was warmly appreciated by the young audience. Senator Samuda is also the parliamentarian who introduced a Private Member’s Motion in the Upper House proposing the ban, which was approved by the Senate (with Opposition support) on October 7, 2016. It’s been a while.
So, what is the ban? Announced by Minister Daryl Vaz in September, it is as follows: As of January 1, 2019, the Government will impose a ban on single-use plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam. The ban covers the importation, manufacture and distribution of the materials. The plastic bags to be banned are commonly referred to a ‘scandal bags’ or other bags with dimensions of 24 inches by 24 inches or less.
Bags that are used for packaging and maintaining public health or food safety standards will not be banned. This applies to plastics that are essential for the maintenance of food and safety standards and include plastics used to package raw meat, flour, sugar, rice and baked goods, such as bread. In some instances, the use of plastic bags will be allowed. However, manufacturers will have to apply to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) for exemptions.
The styrofoam ban applies to food and beverage containers. Regarding drinking straws, the ban will not apply to those used in medical facilities like hospitals or care homes for patients.
This, as I understand, has been arrived at through a consultative approach with stakeholders, in particular, the private sector.
And the private sector seems to be mostly on board with this move. The PSOJ is 100 per cent supportive and wants to be involved in the implementation stages. Island Grill was a pioneer, instituting cardboard containers instead of plastic and styrofoam for its fast food back in 2015 – persisting even in the face of customer resistance – and is working on replacing plastic cups now. Major supermarkets like MegaMart and PriceSmart gave up plastic “scandal bags” years ago and have biodegradable and reusable shopping bags. The Government has promised to work with several companies to help them manufacture more environmentally friendly products. Packaging is an issue with retailers, too – why sell six tomatoes on a styrofoam dish wrapped in plastic?
At a beach clean-up recently, the European Union also pledged full support. The EU delegation Head has expressed her shock and dismay, more than once, at the careless littering of our beautiful environment. Most visitors would agree.
On a positive note, this ban can be implemented under existing laws – the Trade Act, which carries a J$2 million fine. It is a deterrent, but no amount of fines will work if the wider society does not really understand and accept it, said Mr Mitchell. He has a point, and that’s where the public education comes in. I’m not talking about radio jingles and expensive newspaper ads. I am talking about walking the lanes in communities – especially in informal communities – discussing, explaining to small groups and individuals – “on the corner.” This is the only way!
Well really, who needs plastic straws, anyway?
So, this is a big step in the right direction. But, it’s a process, and questions and concerns linger. The devil is in the details, and I do hope those details are addressed. I am not sanguine about NEPA monitoring and enforcing the process. Its responsiveness and effectiveness in other areas leave much to be desired. But we shall see.
The huge, outstanding matter is the Curse of the Plastic Bottles, of course. I was happy to see that GenTech had supplied the three speakers with their own personal, reusable water containers, instead of the usual plastic (which I always hate to see at local events). What a very nice touch! Plastic bottles (followed by bottle tops) are always top of the list at our coastal clean-ups.
When the topic inevitably came up, we were informed that the Government is still working on a plastic bottle deposit refund scheme, which should have been ready last month but is still being worked on. Minister Vaz is expected to make an announcement quite early next year (March, perhaps).
And alternatives? There needs to be much more public education and discussion on this. Well, I wrote about the potential of bamboo some years ago. USAID partnered with New Horizons and the Digicel Foundation on a training programme in 2015. Now the Bamboo Industry Association of Jamaica, formed in the same year, is gearing up for a regional conference on November 27 and 28 at Kingston’s Jamaica Conference Centre. (PS to BIAJ: Please update your social media!) I honestly cannot understand why bamboo was never considered as a good material before. Let’s ensure we use the invasive alien species of bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris) which has little or no ecological benefit and grows very fast.
I see small signs that make me optimistic. I ate lunch the other day from a caterer who was using bamboo forks and spoons. Our local jerk spot and bar now serves its yummy takeaway jerk pork in cardboard boxes. Adapting to a life without plastic is more than doable – it makes sense and it is the only way. We know we cannot continue along this path to ruin and ill health. As Mr Mitchell said, “It will kill all of us.” Yes, literally.
The answer: “We need to throw ourselves at the problem,” said Mr Mitchell.