03 Jun 2019 Editorial

The Caribbean addresses the Scourge of Plastic Pollution with Help from the Cartagena Convention Secretariat

“Our world is swamped by harmful plastic waste. Microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy. From remote islands to the Artic, nowhere is untouched. If present trends continue, by 2050, our oceans will have more plastic than fish. The message is simple: reject single use plastic. Refuse what you can't reuse. Together, we can chart a path to a cleaner, greener world.” - António Guterres United Nations Secretary General (World Environment Day 2018)

Seventy to eighty-five per cent of Marine Litter in the Caribbean Sea is from land-based sources of solid waste.  Marine Litter is one of three priority pollutants (the others being Agrochemical Run-Off and Domestic Wastewater) that are being targeted for improved management.  Marine Litter consists substantially of plastics.

Right now, governments throughout the Wider Caribbean Region have banned, or are considering bans on, single-use plastics, including plastic bags and/or Styrofoam. 

Antigua and Barbuda led the charge with a five-phased approach to getting rid of plastics, beginning on 1st January 2016.  This included extensive consultation with stakeholders, the decision to incorporate the ban into existing legislation rather than create new laws, an awareness raising campaign launched on World Environment Day 2016 with the tagline “Make a difference one bag at a time”, and, the listing of government approved alternatives such as bagasse.  The result was that the composition of plastic at landfills declined from 19.5% in 2006 to 4.4% in 2017.

The momentum continues. More than 18 territories have already definitively banned single-use plastic and/or Styrofoam products.  In addition, 3 countries have introduced bans at local levels; 2 have announced bans to begin in 2020 and 2021; 14 are discussing it at government level, and 4 have begun public consultations.

The environmental, social and economic impacts of plastics in the environment are well known.  They include: the choking of waterways and exacerbation of flooding; contamination of soil and water as they take hundreds of years to decompose; entering the food chain because of ingestion by fish; blocking of sewage systems and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes, thereby raising the risk of transmission of waterborne diseases like dengue; and, visual pollution, impacting tourism and recreational activities.    

If walking with re-useable bags for your weekly shopping, filling re-useable water bottles, and thinking twice before using plastic cups and straws, are becoming second-nature to you… it’s not accidental. As our awareness of its effects increases, the convenience of plastic just isn’t as attractive as it once was.  That awareness is growing because of several ongoing initiatives.

#CleanSeas - Engaging the public’s attention

In February 2017, UN Environment launched the #CleanSeas Campaign to engage governments, the public, civil society, and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic litter.  It aimed to address the root-cause of marine litter by targeting the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastic. More than anything else, #CleanSeas aims to highlight the scale of the problem.

By April 2019, sixty governments (including nine in the Caribbean) accounting for more than 60% of the world’s coastline, had signed up to the #CleanSeas Campaign.  Many have begun making specific commitments to protecting oceans, encouraging recycling and cutting back on single-use plastics.  Some have created marine reserves and adopted national plans on recycling and waste management.

Cartagena Convention Secretariat – A framework for action and tracking progress

As the Secretariat to the Cartagena Convention, the only legally binding environmental agreement in the Region, the United Nations Environment Programme – Caribbean Environment Programme (UN Environment CEP) ensures synergies with the obligations of Regional Governments that are its Contracting Parties and supports implementation of the Land-Based Sources of Marine Pollution (LBS) Protocol and the Caribbean Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter (RAPMaLI).

This includes support for national and regional marine litter projects as well as promoting national policy and legal reforms. These activities are implemented through technical and high-level meetings, a dedicated webpage, social media platforms, the creation of information materials, development and implementation of solid waste and marine litter related projects and sharing of information on new grant opportunities.

In 2018, UN Environment CEP prepared a technical research brief on the implementation of Styrofoam and Single Use Plastic Bag bans in the Caribbean. An interactive map was also introduced to help in the tracking of progress. Together these products are being used to raise awareness, throughout the region. In May 2018, the report was disseminated to Focal Points of the Cartagena Convention for their review and feedback, following which it was finalized and presented at the Fourth Scientific, Technical Advisory Committee Meeting in Panama in July 2018.

Getting down to Communities – Trash Free Waters International Partnership

In 2017, UN Environment CEP entered into a partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Peace Corps and UN Environment’s Regional Office for Latin America and its Caribbean Sub-Regional Office (UN Environment SRO) called the Trash Free Waters Initiative. The Partnership, which was launched with activities in Panama and Jamaica, brings stakeholders together to identify priority needs and activities to reduce and prevent land-based trash from entering watersheds, coastal waters, and the Caribbean Sea.  

In Jamaica, implementation is led by the Sandals Foundation with technical support from the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA). In February 2018, in the communities of Bluefields and Whitehouse on Jamaica’s south coast, over 200 labelled bins were placed at 34 locations. In the latter half of 2018, there were 20 outreach activities and several surveys conducted in the community as well as in schools.

In Panama, the initiative is being led by UN Environment- Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (ROLAC) with support from ANCON, a private, non-profit organization, whose mission is to conserve Panama’s biodiversity and natural resources for present and future generations. The organization has been coordinating the implementation of pilot project activities in the coastal community of Juan Diaz. Since July 2018, teachers and students in four educational institutions have been trained in solid waste management and pollution prevention. Volunteers have also been trained in waste separation. 

Lessons from this project have been incorporated into national and regional efforts coordinated by the Secretariat. The report and experiences from this project, including private sector partnership, will be presented at the upcoming 18th Intergovernmental Meeting and 15th Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Convention in June 2019 in Honduras.

The linkages made with other government programmes that address solid waste management, and, the promotion of partnerships between civil society and the private sector in both countries are the most significant aspects of these initiatives.  The timing is right for both replication and upscaling through the rest of the Wider Caribbean Region.

Supporting Global Efforts - Global Partnership on Marine litter (GPML)

The Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) is a multi-stakeholder partnership that was launched at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 in June 2012.  It brings together actors working on marine litter to share knowledge and experience and to advance solutions to this global issue.  The GPML Caribbean Node (GPML-Caribe) was formed in 2016 and has been working to reduce the quantity and impact of marine litter in coastal zones of the Wider Caribbean Region. It is co-hosted by the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute (GCFI) and the Secretariat for the Cartagena Convention.

In March 2019, Marine Litter experts from the WCR gathered to develop a strategic outline for marine litter management to support the further implementation of the RAPMaLI. Participants included representatives from government agencies, civil society organizations, private sector and regional institutions. The following themes were proposed and endorsed:

  • Research and Monitoring

  • Governance: Including Institutional, Policy, Legislative & Regulatory Frameworks and Enforcement

  • Communication: Including Outreach, Education, Awareness and Advocacy

  • Capacity Building & Training

  • Implementation

Christopher Corbin, Programme Officer responsible for the Pollution programme at the Secretariat, stresses that Marine Litter is a problem that we can solve with commitment and joint action. According to him “Results from Global and Regional Research on marine litter and plastics is clear.  Action is now needed at all levels – by Governments, by Private Industry and most of all by local communities and individuals.”