Blue Awakening as Latin America and Caribbean States Say No to Plastic

22 October 2018 (UN Environment)*From the remote Galápagos Islands to the humid depths of the Amazon forest, governments are cutting back on plastic, citizens are cleaning beaches, and innovators are seeking alternative products as part of a region-wide movement to turn the tide on plastic pollution.


Wembley/ Unsplash | Photo from UN Environment

Awareness of the need to act is growing in a region that is particularly vulnerableto marine litter – the Caribbean is the second most polluted sea in the world – and to other environmental threats caused by our changing climate, such as increasingly powerful storms.

João Malavolta, an environmentalist and founder of Brazil’s Ecosurfconservation group, says there has been a public awakening, particularly among wealthier consumers, but all levels of society need to be engaged.

“We need to create a new social pact on the use of plastic in people’s daily lives,” he said.

“This should include educating children and young people on conscious consumption, creating legal mechanisms to make plastic products more expensive and using mass media, influencers and personalities to enhance warnings about the impact of indiscriminate use of plastics.”

Photo by Guillaume Baudusseau/ Unsplash | Photo from UN Environment

In October, Guatemala became the latest country in the region to join UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign to drastically reduce the consumption of single-use plastics and eradicate the use of microbeads. Already signed up are Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Granada, Guyana, Honduras, Panama, Peru, Saint Lucia and Uruguay.

Guatemala is using artisanal bio-fences—made from recovered plastic debris—to collect plastic waste from rivers, allowing communities to collect it, dispose of it, or recycle it. Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Panama have also adopted the bio-fences.

In August, Chile became the first South American country to legally banthe widespread use of plastic bags. The legislation gives large businesses six months to stop using plastic bags, during which time they can hand out a maximum of two bags per customer. Small shops have two years to adapt. Those who do not comply will face a US$370 fine.

“We want to go from a throwaway culture and embrace recycling and a cleaner Chile that better protects our nature,” President Sebastián Piñera tweeted. Chile produces around 3.2 billion plastic bagseach year, and around 90 per cent end up in dumps or in the sea.

Antigua and Barbuda banned plastic bagsin 2016, while Panamahas also approved legislationto curb the use of plastic bags, with businesses given up to two years to phase them out. Jamaica will start implementing abanon plastic bags, Styrofoam and straws next year.

Colombia imposed a tax on plastic bags in July last year—consumers pay one US cent (20 Colombian pesos) to buy a bag and the tax is due to be increased 50 per cent each year. The government says the measure has reduced plastic bag consumption by 35 per cent and raised around US$3.6 million.

Belize, renowned for the second largest barrier reef in the world, has pledged to ban single-use plastic items, such as cutlery, bags and straws, as well as Styrofoam by April 2019. Costa Rica adopted a national strategy to drastically reduce the use of disposable plastics by 2021, replacing them with renewable and combustible alternatives. Meanwhile,Dominica, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria last year, plans to ban plastic and Styrofoam containers and utensils by January 2019.

Ecuador is transforming the Galápagos Islands into a plastic-free archipelago, phasing out plastic bags, straws, polythene take-out containers and bottles this year while in Peru, laws to govern the manufacture, use and import of single-use plastic productsare making their way through parliament.

Brazil joined the Clean Seas campaign in September last year. Fernanda Altoé Daltro, UN Environment’s head campaigner in the country, says there has been a significant shift in public opinion since a sustainable packaging campaign run by the Ministry of Environment around a decade ago. This was followed by a push for sustainable consumption of plastic bags.

“There was a 30 per cent reduction in the consumption of plastic bags with just voluntary measures,” Daltro said, noting that there was another surge in activism last year.

“The issue of plastic pollution has grown so big and has such momentum,” she said. “UN Environment is setting the agenda here and is involved in discussions around public policy and with the private sector, non-governmental organizations and civil society.”

Across the world, UN Environment has played a leading role in encouraging governments to recognize the threat posed by marine litter and support the creation of a global circular economy.

In September, UN Environment and the EU Commission launched the Global Plastics Platform to encourage Member States to embark on a “race to the top” on this issue.

Photo by Milos Prelevic/ Unsplash | Photo from UN Environment

Daltro said that the arrival of the Volvo Ocean Race, with its emphasis onturning the tide on plastic pollution, in Brazil this year also catalyzed the campaign.

However, it has been impossible to introduce a country-wide ban on plastic bags. Instead, individual cities have implemented their own measures. In São Paulo, authorities approved a law prohibiting the free distribution of plastic bagsin shops in 2011, and it came into force in 2015.

This year, Rio de Janeiro became the first city in Brazil to ban straws, and it has also passed legislationto phase out plastic bags.

Malavolta said the São Paulo ban had a positive effect as it encouraged consumers to think about their use of plastic bags.

“Then, they start to investigate, and they discover the size of the plastic problem and the need for laws to guide the supply and consumption of these materials.”

Municipal authorities have also taken the lead elsewhere: Mexico City banned stores from distributing free plastic bagsin 2009 while in Buenos Aires, all supermarkets were banned from using or selling disposable plastic bagsfrom January 2017.

One of the challenges for regional authorities is the lack of a strong recycling sector. A recent UN report found that a third of all waste generated in the region’s cities ends up in open dumps or in the environment. Around 145,000 tonnes of waste are inadequately disposed of every day, and only 10 per cent is reused through recycling or other recovery techniques.

“The way Brazil deals with recycling is through waste pickers,” Daltro explained, noting that segregated waste collection is only available in about 10 per cent of cities.

“(The waste pickers) are the real environmental agents, collecting recyclables, sorting them and selling them to markets,” she said. The market for recovered plastic is, however, hampered by the lack of quantity, poor quality and also by taxes placed on recycled plastic. However, there are signs of change.

“We have big players entering the market and we have a public movement pushing for change. All this talk of a circular economy is filtering through to industry and they are talking seriously about changing,” she said.

For Malavolta, the campaign needs to reach deeper into society and demand more extensive transformation.

“We still cannot reach the poorest sections of society, who are the majority of the population and use many types of disposable plastics every day,” he said.

“We need government support to increase investment in segregated waste collection in cities, to lower taxes on recycled plastic and raise taxes on virgin plastic, to develop comprehensive environmental education programmes and create a fund for civil society initiatives dealing with pollution.”

*SOURCE: UN Environment. Go to ORIGINAL

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