Wed | Jun 20, 2018

Editorial | Fighting plastic pollution

Published:Saturday | May 19, 2018 | 12:00 AM

 

Jamaica has signalled its intention to ban the use of disposable plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. By this landmark step, Jamaica will join the global effort of 40 countries and municipalities in trying to stave off the damage to the environment by the volume of plastic that we discard each day.

In making the announcement earlier this week, Daryl Vaz, minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, did not say when this ban would become effective. However, Government Senator Matthew Samuda reportedly told the media that the ban could come into effect within three months.

Warnings about the havoc plastic and Styrofoam can wreak on the environment are not simply the sounding of alarm bells by crusading NGOs - the threats are real. From flooding to mosquito-breeding sites, plastics can become a nightmare for communities.

 

Huge toll

 

The Earth Policy Institute based in Washington, DC, estimates that one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. That is phenomenal growth given the fact that the first plastic sandwich bag was said to have been introduced in 1957. It's convenient for shoppers to tote their purchases in 'free' plastic bags, but this convenience takes a huge toll on the environment.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) used for food containers take up to a million years to decompose. Plastic bags are made of polyethylene, a material produced by petroleum and natural gas, which is not biodegradable. When they are indiscriminately discarded, the winds toss them along the roadway, they clog drains and waterways, or leach chemicals into the soil and they wash up on the shores.

Animals and marine life are at risk because of the continued use of plastic. Indeed, one of the main drivers behind the ban is to lower the amount of plastic that will find its way into the marine world. It is estimated that more than 250 species of animals have been harmed by ingesting plastic or becoming entangled in the discarded material.

Many developing nations of Africa are at the forefront of the war on plastic. Already, 15 countries on the African continent have either banned plastic or placed taxes on their production, distribution and use. Indeed, Kenya has, by far, the harshest plastic bag ban, for as of August 2017, anyone in Kenya found using, producing or selling a plastic bag faces a prison term of four years or a $38,000 fine.

Denmark was the first European country to start charging for plastic-bag usage in 1994. As other nations joined the fight, there were reports of significant reduction in the usage of plastic bags and the resultant damage to the environment. Europe aims to cut plastic usage by 80 per cent by 2019.

Countries have employed measures such as bans, taxes and fines to put some teeth into the effort to curb the use of plastic. In some cases, the money goes into an environmental fund.

Together with the official ban, the Government needs to emphasise that individuals must accept some personal responsibility for the manner in which they treat waste and dispose of garbage as a way of responding to the environmental crisis brought on by plastic use.

Then there is the matter of enforcement of the ban. In assessing the efficacy of legislation such as the Noise Abatement Act and the anti-litter law, it is evident that compliance is a major problem.

Littering is a behavioural choice, and too many Jamaicans treat the environment with scant regard. Educating the people on the dangers associated with littering and improper disposal of garbage is critical if these attitudes are to change.

In the absence of consistent enforcement and realistic penalties, we cannot see the ban working.