When a whale washed up on the shores of the Philippines in March with 88 pounds of plastic inside its stomach, people recoiled with horror. Plastic litter on the beaches and in the oceans is unseemly enough. But the idea of innocent animals dying with shopping bags, rice sacks and other plastic litter inside them seemed altogether too much to bear.
Each year an estimated one to five trillion plastic bags — totaling together with other products some 13 million tons of plastic— enter the oceans. Scientists don’t fully agree about the effect of plastic on marine animals. But many believe it contributes to the death of whales, dolphins and turtles, harms seabirds, and causes incalculable damage to marine ecosystems.
Plastics can also break down into tiny pieces (smaller than 5 millimeters) of microplastic. They could potentially release toxic chemicals that enter into the tissues of fish, harming us as well.
Imposing taxes and bans on plastic bags
Thankfully, governments, including those in Latin America and the Caribbean, are waking up to the problem. In August of last year, Chile’s congress unanimously passed a law banning plastic shopping bags, with 95% of voters in a poll supporting the measure. Over the two previous years, Antigua and Barbuda also banned plastic shopping bags, and Colombia imposed a tax on large plastic bags, reducing consumption by 35% within a year.
Biodiversity conservation is crucial in Latin America and the Caribbean, given the region’s possession of more than 50% of the world’s biodiversity and 24% of its fisheries. In Costa Rica, where shocking images of a sea turtle with a straw lodged in its nose went viral, the government committed to prohibit all disposable plastics including straws and shopping bags by 2021. The Ecuadorian government prohibited plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam in the Galapagos Islands last year. Peru banned single-use plastics in all its natural and culturally protected areas.
The effectiveness of bans and levies, of course, depends on implementation. Bans can only work if there are vigorous monitoring and enforcement mechanisms in place, including steep fines to ensure that businesses take the measures seriously. Taxes must be carefully planned to ensure that they are set at a high enough level to discourage use. And then there is the issue of what to do with the host of essential plastic items like those used in hospitals and food production. We need to rethink our plastics use on all fronts.
The need for better waste management
Better waste management has to be part of the solution. But only around 55% of municipal wastes (as a percentage of the population) are disposed of properly, such as in landfills, in the region and only around 2% are recycled by companies or official agencies. Moreover, plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose, begging the question of how communities will deal with the rising mountain of plastic trash in a world in which plastics production will likely double by 2040.
To their credit, 250 major organizations and corporations committed last year to work towards a so-called circular economy for plastic in which single-use packaging would gradually be eliminated and collection and processing facilities would be widely available to ensure recycling and reuse. The initiative, known as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, includes companies responsible for 20% of the world’s plastics production. It encompasses firms such as Unilever, Nestle, PespsiCo and Coca-Cola and features $200 million in investment from five venture capital firms. Private firms in Latin America and the Caribbean also have been active in initiatives to reduce marine plastic, most especially in Mexico and Brazil.
Around 5 years ago, a now 24-year-old, self-taught Dutch inventor, named Boyan Slat, unveiled an ingenious device consisting of a 2000-foot boom, connected to a synthetic skirt. In Slat’s vision, the device would rotate with the ocean currents and trap plastic inside. The collected debris would be hauled to the shore for recycling, offering a seemingly painless solution to the problem of plastic litter on the high seas. Slat’s invention was received with immense popular and investor enthusiasm. But after being launched last September into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling gyre of some 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic located between Hawaii and California, the contraption broke up before New Year’s, dimming hopes for a “magic bullet” to plastics pollution.
Fighting plastic pollution on many fronts
For the time being, that means the struggle will have to carried out on a more humble footing, with multiple lines of attack. One is finding alternative materials for plastics, when possible. That is what Antigua and Barbuda attempted to do when it eliminated taxes on the import of sugar cane, bamboo, paper and potato starch — materials that can be used to manufacture environmentally-friendly shopping bags. Improving waste management, including recycling, is also crucial, as are information campaigns to inform people about the harm that plastics waste is causing and what can be done about it. Bans and levies play an important role.
Our planet is being smothered. It is about time we find a technologically and financially feasible way to burrow our way out from the mounds of plastic.