26 July 2017 – It is common knowledge that when plastic ends up in the ocean, it negatively impacts the livelihoods of fisherfolk and the tourism sector, especially for iconic locations such as Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
To address this challenge, Colombia has been promoting eco-friendly options as substitutes to single-use plastic. As of 1 January 2017, the government banned single-use plastic bags smaller than 30x30 cm and introduced alternatives with a higher load-carrying capacity. This action alone resulted in a 27 per cent reduction.
In July 2017, the government went one step further and introduced a tax on single-use plastic bags. The objective of this legislation is to encourage consumers to use reusable bags, thus curbing drastically marine litter, which is mostly plastic waste, and one of the biggest threats to oceans. This levy aims to pave the way to replenish the fish stock and boost the economy.
At the rate we are dumping items such as plastic bottles, single-use bags and cups, by 2050 our oceans will carry more plastic than fish. This is why as of 1 July 2017, Colombians are paying one US cent (20 Colombian pesos) to purchase single-use plastic bags. As a deterrent to use this type of plastic, the government will annually be increasing the tax by 50 per cent.
In recent years, volunteer networks and environmental organizations have addressed this challenge by raising awareness of responsible consumption, reuse and recycling and organizing beach clean-ups.
In 2015, in Tierrabomba alone - an island near Cartagena - the Bahía Foundation and partners collected 96 tons of waste, mainly plastics.
“This is a massive amount of waste for a small town that lacks access to public services,” explained Olga Méndez, who works at the Bahía Foundation based in Cartagena.
But these efforts alone are not enough to stop litter coming from urban water sources or through sea currents.
Government statistics and World Wildlife Fund figures show that in Colombia the annual average consumption is about 288 plastic bags per person. The Government is keen to reduce this type of single-use plastic by 75 per cent. This reduction would lead to social, environmental and economic benefits to the tune of $825 million.
Environmental leaders in Cartagena hope this new policy will change consumption patterns resulting in reduced plastic pollution in the Caribbean, which today ranks as the second most polluted sea in the world.
"Colombia had to take a concrete step to introduce a non-plastic economy," said Camilo Mercado, coordinator of the volunteers’ network Youths for Environment in Cartagena.
“These efforts aim to bring about the necessary behavioural change, thus dramatically reducing the consumption of single-use plastic,” says, Luis Gilberto Murillo, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia.
“Cartagena is taking additional steps to keep streets and beaches clean, thanks to a recent reform in the waste management system,” says Méndez. “And the introduction of the ‘plastic tax’ definitely is a concrete and positive step to ensure a sustainable future.”
“Last year alone, we saw a change in consumption patterns that certainly has had a positive impact on reducing environmental damage caused by plastic,” explained Minister Murillo.
Colombia is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of marine biodiversity, with 2,900 km of coastline and almost a million square km in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. Its national waters are home to 2,600 marine species, 155 hard corals, and 6 of the 7 registered turtle species.
Recently Colombia joined the UN Environment #CleanSeas campaign which aims to dramatically reduce use of microplastics and single-use plastics.