22 Oct 2018 Story Oceans & seas

Blue awakening as Latin America and Caribbean states say no to plastic

Wembley/ Unsplash

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.

Awareness of the need to act is growing in a region that is particularly vulnerable to 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.

In October, Belize and Guatemala became the latest countries 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.

“We are very proud to join the Clean Seas campaign and showcase the efforts of communities around the country who are following the Guatemalan Way to tackle plastic pollution. The bio-fences are a creative, low-cost technology made in-house and that is what makes them so popular,” says Alfonso Alonzo, Minister of Environment and Natural Resources of Guatemala.

Photo by Guillaume Baudusseau/ Unsplash

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.

Antigua and Barbuda was the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to ban plastic bags in 2016. “We have been successful in implementing this legislation, because we invited all sectors, including the private sector, to help us from the start in the design of the ban. We first built a consensus, then passed the law. This is the only way we can succeed,” says Molwyn Joseph, Minister for Health and the Environment of Antigua and Barbuda.

“Plastic is everywhere. Plastic is destroying our Earth. We need to stop the current unsustainable consumption patterns. If we do not reverse this course, future generations will inherit more plastic,” says Joseph.

Nowhere is this so clear than in the small islands of the Caribbean. “We are particularly vulnerable to climate change. For us, it is a matter of life or death. That is why we take the fight against marine pollution so seriously. Bahamas is keen to do its part in terms of preserving the marine environment. We will be introducing legislation to ban single-use plastics and join the rest of mankind in the move to preserve life on this planet,” says Romauld Sotario Ferreira, Minister of Environment and Housing of Bahamas.

In August, Chile became the first South American country to legally ban the widespread use of plastic bags. “The fight against plastic pollution is a priority for the government. This ban was the first law passed by President Sebastián Piñera,” says Carolina Schmidt, Minister of Environment of Chile.

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 to one that embraces recycling, and a cleaner Chile that better protects our nature,” President Piñera tweeted. Chile produces around 3.2 billion plastic bags each year, and around 90 per cent end up in dumps or in the sea.

Panama has also approved legislation to curb the use of plastic bags, with businesses given up to two years to phase them out. Jamaica will start implementing a ban on plastic bags, styrofoam and straws next year. 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.

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.

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 products are making their way through parliament.

Brazil joined the Clean Seas campaign in September last year. "With a coastline of 7,000 kilometres, Brazil is making its contribution to the world:  we expanded our marine protected areas to 24,5 per cent in the last two years. But it is not enough to expand the conservation areas or to raise awareness. Both are important, but we need a set of consistent and concrete public policies to curb marine pollution,” says Edson Duarte, Minister of the Environment of Brazil.

UN Environment has been working closely with the Ministry of Environment to set the agenda on marine litter in Brazil and has been 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

However, in the two top economies in the region, Brazil and Mexico, it has not been possible to introduce 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 bags in 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 legislation to phase out plastic bags.

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

For more information, contact: María Amparo Lasso, Head of Communications for Latin America and the Caribbean. maria.lasso[at]un.org