Jamaica takes aim at the trash crisis that is ruining paradise

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A report by Kate Chapell for the Washington Post.

When Neville Hall dives into the waters of Kingston Harbor searching for conch and fish, he sees a lot of black. Black plastic bags waving like seaweed, black sludge coating the ocean floor — the degraded remnants of all sorts of plastic waste. But not as much conch or fish as he used to see when he started fishing in 1979.

Hall knows firsthand the toll that plastics and Styrofoam take on the ocean and the environment at large.

“The pollution kills out the mangroves, and in certain places where you would have pretty sand, mud is there. All different things happen,” Hall said.

Relief from the scourge may be in sight for Jamaica, which is among at least 20 Caribbean and Latin American nations banning — or in discussions to ban — the importation, manufacture and distribution of single-use plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam. As of Jan. 1, those items will be prohibited here, and plastic bottles will eventually be collected for reimbursement and recycled.

Jamaica is one of several island countries that have reached a tipping point about non-biodegradable waste and the daily threat it poses to paradise. It will not be easy. While the struggle to combat waste is not unique to these islands, their geography makes it harder for them than for large land masses, where landfill sites are plentiful and there is less shoreline, in proportion to the total area, on which garbage can wash up.

Although some logistics have yet to be finalized, Jamaica’s ban was inevitable, according to Daryl Vaz, minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation.

“Based on where the world was going globally, we made a decision. We have very, very serious environmental problems,” he said.

Among those problems, according to Kristal Ambrose, a young Bahamian environmentalist who has launched a campaign against non-biodegradable waste in her country, are the flows of litter clogging drains and the gullies that flood when it rains, the microplastics that end up in the food chain and the waste that endangers wildlife. There is also the problem of aesthetics, especially in a region dependent on tourism.

Tour any Caribbean island, and it becomes apparent that most of their beaches and lush forests are despoiled by plastic bottles, straws, fishing nets, plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. But they are fighting back — following the lead of Rwanda, the first country to ban plastic bags in 2008, and Haiti, which in 2012 became the first in the Caribbean to do so.

“We are finally seeing a shift in momentum,” said Vincent Sweeney, head of the U.N. Environment Caribbean Sub-Regional Office. “The tipping point is an apt description.”

According to the United Nations, the world consumes each year up to 5 trillion plastic bags made from a petroleum-based product that takes 500 years to degrade. A World Bank report found that close to 420,000 tons of plastic waste entered the Caribbean Sea in 2010, with that amount expected to rise to 790,000 tons by 2025.

The management of non-biodegradable waste is a complex system of production and consumption that must be regulated at both ends, says Suzanne Stanley, chief executive of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Key to that is an education campaign about the consequences of littering, targeted at Jamaicans, as well as more specific rules for manufacturers and importers.

“There are cultural behaviors and attitudes about waste that need to be improved on,” Stanley said.

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