Reusable bags, paper straws, cardboard containers: Jamaica boldly moves to save paradise

Unusual kind of fishing competition in Jamaica: collect garbage!

Jamaica has a solid-waste management problem. Non-biodegradable materials are a large part of it. About 120 people on 113 boats participated in an unusual kind of fishing tournament, collecting 11,336 lbs of garbage out of Kingston Harbor.
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Jamaica has a solid-waste management problem. Non-biodegradable materials are a large part of it. About 120 people on 113 boats participated in an unusual kind of fishing tournament, collecting 11,336 lbs of garbage out of Kingston Harbor.

Frozen rum cocktails are now sipped through paper straws. Supermarket groceries are packed in reusable bags. And restaurant take-out is carried out in cardboard containers.

As a January countrywide ban on the importation, manufacturing and distribution of single-use plastic bags and straws takes hold in Jamaica, plastic phobia is sweeping the Caribbean nation as Jamaicans try to adjust to a more environmentally friendly mindset.

“It’s hard,” said Tanisha Doctor, 40, an unemployed shopper spotted walking through a shopping mall one day last week with a lone black plastic bag in her hands. She’s finding it hard to give it up. “I’ve had this for while,” she said, with a chuckle.

Like many, Doctor said she often forgets to walk with her reusable bag. On top of it, she doesn’t like it.

“It limits me because of the amount of grocery you can carry,” she said. “And the paper straws, I don’t like the paper straws.”

But as inconvenient as it all is, Doctor admits that she knows giving up the modern convenience of plastic “is a good idea. It’s just hard to adjust.”

In late May, 120 people on 113 boats participated in an unusual kind of fishing tournament in Jamaica to f ish out garbage and plastics in particular out of Kingston Harbor. In all, 11,336 pounds of garbage were removed out of the harbor. Half of the garbage was plastic waste. Courtesy of Brandon McKoy

Jamaica, like many of its neighbors in the Caribbean, has a solid-waste management problem and non-biodegradable materials like plastic are a large part of it. Last week, 120 people on 13 boats participated in an unusual kind of fishing tournament, taking 11,336 pounds of garbage out of Kingston Harbor. Half of the garbage was household items like furniture and old refrigerators. The other half was plastic waste, said organizer Brandon McKoy.

“That’s really the pollutant; that is what we mostly see,” McKoy, 30, said.

Plastic bottles and ubiquitous black plastic shopping bags like the one Doctor was carrying — they are known here as “scandal bags,” after the unsavory contents they often pack — are littering Jamaica’s otherwise idyllic landscape. They clog gullies, and wash up on the beach, where they eventually float out to sea. There, they endanger marine life.

In 2015, the average Jamaican used almost 500 “scandal bags” annually compared to individuals in more developed places like the European Union, where the average was 200 plastic shopping bags per person annually, the United Nations said. Between 2010 and 2015, Jamaica’s annual plastic bag consumption rose from about 865 million to 1.2 billion, said the Jamaica Environment Trust, which has long advocated for better management of the country’s waste.

In Jamaica, solid waste management is a huge problem, which has led the Caribbean nation to ban single-use plastic bags and straws, and foam containers. Jacqueline Charles

And adding to that problem are plastic bottles, which are not addressed in the ban. In 2010, Jamaica manufactured and imported the equivalent of 18.5 million pounds of plastic bottles. Six years later, that number had skyrocketed to 29 million pounds.

“The system has not evolved in order to deal with the evolving waste stream and that has posed a particular problem on a small island like Jamaica,” said Suzanne Stanley, executive director of the Jamaica Environment Trust..

But Jamaicans are fed up with the waste, which is why Stanley said she believes so many are changing their habits even while complaining about losing sales because customers forget to walk with their reusable bags, or having to drive around with a collection in the trunks of their cars.

“There is this very real understanding that garbage lying around in the environment breeds pests, breeds diseases,” Stanley said. “Also, we are very reliant on income earned from tourism, and there is this understanding of why would I as a visitor to Jamaica want to come to a dirty beach, a dirty country? We are hurting ourselves. We are hurting our economy.”

Bans or restrictions on plastic bags, foam cups and other single-use containers have been gaining momentum worldwide for about a decade. Last summer Miami Beach banned plastic straws and stirrers on public property, including sidewalk cafes, and in March, New York became the second state after California to issue a statewide ban on most types of single-use plastic bags.

But as businesses seek alternatives like paper bags, the move remains a matter of debate. Some argue that paper bags, which are made from trees and biodegradable, aren’t necessarily good for climate change and require more water and energy to manufacture than plastic.

To help address Jamaica’s plastic waste problem, Brandon McKoy, who runs his own business, this year hosted a fishing tournament. Instead of searching for fish, participants were asked to remove the trash including plastic waste out of Kingston Harbor. Courtesy of Brandon McKoy

A study by University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor of plastic bans in some California cities and counties found that while plastic waste had been reduced, purchases for trash bags had spiked, eroding the benefits of the ban. The reason is that people needed a way to discard their waste, a reality that Stanley of the Jamaica Environment Trust said she and other proponents of Jamaica’s plastic ban have had to confront.

“Part of the public education campaign we have done is to say, ‘Hey, we know that scandal bags are banned, but you still are responsible for containerizing your garbage.’

“We acknowledge that we need to move away from the single-use plastics that we are getting in the supermarkets, and use reusable bags in their place,” she added. “But we also acknowledge that we have a waste containerization problem in Jamaica and that means it has to be packaged up properly. So we still want to ensure that garbage bags are still allowed and should be used.”

There are more than 14 countries in the Caribbean and Latin America region that have put in place plastics regulation, the Caribbean office for the U.N. Environment said, with others expected to be in place by 2020. The bans, however, have had varying degrees of success.

In Haiti, which in 2012 became the first Caribbean nation to ban polystyrene foam containers and single-use plastic shopping bags made of polyethylene, the effort has been an abysmal failure due to lack of government enforcement.

In Grenada, where Styrofoam has been banned as of Sept. 1 and plastic shopping bags as of February, results are mixed. The Grenada Tourism Authority said while restaurants and caterers are replacing foam containers with environmentally safe products, it has observed that single-use plastics and straws are still being used, though to a lesser extent.

Meanwhile, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where the all-inclusive Beaches Resort had already eliminated plastic straws and stirrers before an island-wide ban that went into effect on May 1, islanders and tourists are still trying to adjust. The island’s leading grocer, Graceway Supermarkets, has been helping customers move away from plastic shopping bags to reusable bags with plans to start charging for paper bags later this year. Every time a customer brings or buys a reusable bag, they are given a token and invited to make a charity donation to help the environment.

So far in Jamaica, the ban is going well, said Sen. Matthew Samuda, who led the movement with a motion in parliament in 2016. The importation of Styrofoam has also been banned and as of Jan. 1, 2020, the use of all foam containers will also be banned.

“There is broad base acceptance at this point,” Samuda said, noting that the ordinance does allow for some food packaging exceptions. “We are making a change in what had become a habit for the Jamaican people.”

He credits the success to engaging with the country’s plastic bag manufacturers and distributors, who are being assisted with manufacturing other products, like reusable bags.

“We expect this measure will cut our plastic bag usage by 80 percent in the next 12 months,” Samuda said.

Every now and then those pesky black bags appear at vendor stalls along with biodegradable plastic bags, which Peter Knight of the National Environment and Planning Agency said are also banned. Though some business people described the implementation of the ban as “rocky,” Knight said this is the first time in all of his years in government ”I have seen a high level of support” for a government policy.

“The public is so supportive of this policy that the government dare not try to reverse it,” he said. “What we are seeing is a total cultural change in the marketplace. People are walking with their bags in their hands or they’ve got to take their groceries in their hand.”

Knight said his agency, which is in charge of regulating the ordinance, is serious about enforcement. Last week, a businessman in St. James Parish, where Montego Bay is located, was cited with breaching the bag ban after the National Environment and Planning Agency and Jamaica customs investigated a tip that he was distributing banned shopping bags to other business owners. He has a June 5th court date and faces a fine of up to $15,000 or up to two years’ imprisonment.

The businessman was more the exception than the rule, said proponents, who note that not only are most businesses complying but some are even absorbing the costs of reusable and paper bags themselves.

“In most businesses I believe they are now charging for bags. We are not at this point in time, but it’s taken a significant amount of money. It’s not a minor impact. It’s pretty significant. But the environment needs that. It is a disaster,” said Mark Myers, managing director of Restaurants of Jamaica, which operates the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut restaurants in the country.

“’When you see the plastic waste and how it has permeated the environment,” he said, “you fully understand and see the need to do something with plastics.”

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.