Plastic and foam food containers are everywhere in this enterprising Caribbean nation — clogging canals, cluttering streets and choking ocean wildlife.
Now those pesky black plastic bags made of polyethylene and polystyrene foam cups, plates, trays and other containers that have become as ubiquitous as the vendors who peddle them in street markets are on their way out.
Haiti’s government has announced a ban on importing, manufacturing and marketing them as of Oct. 1.
“This is a logical decision and makes sense,” Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said. “Importing, manufacturing bio-degradable items will benefit Haiti’s short, mid- and long-term environmental interest.”
In Haiti the black plastic bags are the primary mode for transporting items among Haiti’s poor who shuffle back and forth to open air street markets on an almost daily basis. They also are a key, but dangerous, ingredient in curbside cooking, helping food cook faster. The bags and containers are then dumped haphazardly into canals, turning them into rivers of debris several feet deep.
Environmental groups have been pushing plastic bag bans both internationally and in the United States for some time. The African nation of Rwanda became the first country to ban all plastics in 2008. Mexico City, Bangladesh, and most recently, Toronto are among the largest international cities that have imposed bans.
Argentina also is calling for all supermarkets to eliminate non-biodegradable plastic bags by October 2014.
In the United States, bans have been approved in cities and counties from Maine to Washington. Nearly 50 cities and counties in California alone embrace a celebrity-endorsed ban. In Los Angeles, the largest American city in the country to approve the ban, bags will be phased out at thousands of stores over the next year or so.
Meanwhile, in Florida, a 2009 attempt by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to phase out bags after five years fell flat after lawmakers didn't buy into the proposal.
Bill Hickman, who coordinates the anti-bag campaign for The Surfrider Foundation, one of the more active organizations on the issue, said he wasn’t aware of any targeted effort in Haiti. He calls the proposal “great news.’’
Mostly cities and urban counties have adopted the ban, which targets the thin, lightweight plastic bags commonly used at grocery stores and convenience store checkouts. But some of the worst pollution from the bags occurs in poorer undeveloped nations, said Hickman.
“We see a lot of issues in the Third World,’’ he said. “Some of the most shocking photos come from places like Indonesia and Central America. These items are very cheap and easy to litter, and there is very little infrastructure to recycle them.’’
For environmentalists, the biggest problem is that many of the billions of bags used annually commonly end up in the ocean where they and other plastic debris kill countless sea birds, sea turtles and other marine life. The thin bags, which blow away with the slightest winds, also pose problems at landfills and in most cases aren’t cost-effective for recycling.
“It’s really kind of the tip of the plastic pollution iceberg,’’ Hickman said. “Plastic does not biodegrade. It may [break down in sunlight] over time into smaller pieces, but it persists well past our lifetimes in the environment.’’
The Haitian crackdown was first announced last month in a presidential decree issued by President Michel Martelly. After initial confusion and public protests because it was assumed that plastic bags used for potable water were also being targeted — for now they are exempt — the crackdown appears to be winning public support.
For weeks, the government has been running TV spots informing the general public about the ban.
“If they tell us not to sell them, we won’t,” said Christine Resile, 39, a mother of three who began peddling plastic bags last year after losing her $50 a month housekeeping job in the hills of Port-au-Prince. “We sell them because we don’t have any alternatives; not because we love selling them.”
Marguerite Etienne, who sells food on a congested curbside in downtown Port-au-Prince, said she’s prepared to work with the ban.
“The clients will just have to come with their plates and bowls as they did before we started using the containers,” she said, frying plantains and pork on a charcoal stove. To-go foam containers were stacked nearby. “These things litter the country. Haiti wasn’t always this dirty,” Etienne said.
But getting Haitians to adjust to the changes may be easier said than done. The imported containers, which come mainly from the neighboring Dominican Republic, have become an integral part of daily life. For instance, a day after Tropical Storm Isaac flooded the country last month, Martelly posted photos on his Facebook page showing his wife Sophia Martelly distributing hot meals to children on foam plates.
Environmental activists in Haiti say while they commend the government for being environmentally-proactive, they do wonder how Haiti — a country that already struggles to control its porous borders and collect taxes — will police the ban.
“I would like to see it go through, but I would also like to see them have a contingency plan if it doesn’t,” said Sam Bloch of Haiti Communitere, a nongovernmental organization in Port-au-Prince that promotes environmentally friendly projects among Haitians. “There is still plenty of trash in Haiti that is waiting to go into the ocean.”
Earlier this year, Haiti Communitere, with the help of 20 women from the Cité Soleil slum, completed the construction of a hurricane and earthquake-resistant house. The tiny house is made from recycled plastic bags and 27,000 foam containers pulled from nearby canals. Bloch said the goal is to build more of the homes for Haiti’s poor, with the help of a factory that can turn the containers into “blocks” for faster construction.
Sasha Kramer, a University of Miami professor, who co-founded SOIL, a U.S. nonprofit that turns human waste into compost in Haiti, said it is difficult to imagine how the Haitian government’s ban will be implemented.
“Banning widely used items can only be successful when viable alternatives are available,” Kramer said. “Unless this ban goes hand-in-hand with a new product that can replace plastic bags and Styrofoam, it will not be successful, and is likely to heavily impact the poor who rely on these products to sell their goods on the informal market.”
In Rwanda, parliament passed the 2008 ban after a four-year sensitization period and after a scientific study showed “an overwhelming negative impact of plastic bags on the environment” and the country’s economy, the head of the African nation’s environmental management authority said.
Rose Mukankomeje, director general of the Rwandan Environmental Management Authority, said the ban is part of an overall government strategy promoting good hygiene among Rwandans.
“The environmental impact of the plastic bag ban in Rwanda is huge,” she said. “Rwanda is today an extraordinarily clean country. Tourism is increasing, which is very good economically for our country.”
Still, success didn’t come overnight, or with just a law. Campaigns promoting the ban targeted both the public and airline passengers, and the country has put an institution in charge of enforcement. It also has provided alternatives for packaging, and leaders lead by example. Each month every day, Rwandans join leaders in cleaning their respective communities.
“We work very closely with local government institutions, with police and others,” Mukankomeje said. She noted that the government also contracts with a private company to help with enforcement.
“We package in bags done in cotton, biodegradable materials like banana, papyrus,” she said. “Every country has to check the best option for its people and bring them on board.”
Haiti’s Environmental Minister Jean Vilmond Hilaire did not respond to questions on what alternatives the Caribbean nation is considering and how it plans to enforce the ban, other than notifying customs agents and importers about what products are banned.
Lamothe, the prime minister, said the crackdown is aimed at protecting Haiti’s coastlines, shores and what’s left of its mangroves. He acknowledges that the country has “a massive garbage issue” and environmentally toxic material clogs “95 percent of our sewage system, creating mass floods in poor neighborhoods... that is costing the state more than $50 million a year if we had the means to clean up.”