Green groups increasingly spotlight producers of the plastic choking the world’s oceans. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)
Early last year the United Nations came as close as a peacekeeping organization can to declaring war. The enemy: ocean plastic. “It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans,” Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, the U.N.’s environmental-protection arm, said at the Feb. 23, 2017 launch of the initiative, called the Clean Seas Campaign. “Plastic pollution is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling onto the ocean floor at the North Pole and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables. We’ve stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop.”
As Solheim acknowledged, the campaign was late in coming. Since the early 2000s, countries, nongovernmental organizations and international environmental bodies have called for action to reduce the relentless global production, use and improper disposal—often in waterways leading to the sea—of plastic. The U.N. estimates that in all, some 13 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans each year. The movement began taking shape in 2002, when Bangladesh became the first country to prohibit plastic bags after they choked drainage and sewage following flooding. Since then, more than 60 nations around the globe have followed suit, enacting local and federal legislation to eliminate single-use plastic bags and straws and prohibit styrofoam and polyethylene packaging. Countries such as Rwanda, where it is illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags, Kenya, where plastic-bag use can result in a fine or prison sentence, and Denmark, which began charging a tax on plastic bags in 1993, have helped pave the way for reduction efforts.
As global efforts to decrease plastic have gained traction, Latin American countries are joining the fight. Plastic pollution has burgeoned in ocean waters and on beaches in Latin America and the Caribbean. Region-wide, the indiscriminate dumping of plastic is estimated at 17,000 tons per day, according to a UN Environment report presented during the Oct. 9-12 XXI Forum of Ministers of Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Buenos Aires. (See Q&A—this issue.) At the event, Guatemala joined UN Environment’s Clean Seas Campaign, committing to intensify efforts to prevent plastics from entering the oceans by installing artisanal bio-fences, made with recovered plastic debris, in its rivers. The fences, used to collect plastic waste and make it easier for local communities to properly dispose of the material or recycle it, have also been adopted in Honduras, Panama and the Dominican Republic, according to an Oct. 11 statement from the Clean Seas Campaign. To date, 16 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have joined the Clean Seas initiative.
“The countries of the region are promoting bold legislative initiatives and innovative technologies to curb the use of single-use plastics,” Leo Heileman, UN Environment’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, was quoted as saying in the Oct. 11 statement. “The Latin American and Caribbean region is setting an example in the fight against plastic pollution.”
Of the multiple efforts underway in the region, initiatives to curb use of single-use plastics loom largest. Every country in Latin America and the Caribbean has—whether through local or regional legislation, national-government initiatives or campaigns conducted by non-governmental organizations—implemented measures to reduce the use of plastic bags, straws or styrofoam.
So far, Chile appears to be emerging as a regional leader. In May, the Chilean Congress unanimously passed South America’s first nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags. The legislation broadens a measure pushed through Congress last year by then-President Michelle Bachelet to curb plastic-bag use in over 100 coastal districts. As he enacted the expanded ban, which applies to retailers, supermarkets and small- and medium-sized businesses, Sebastián Piñera, Bachelet’s successor, said on Aug. 3 that Chile is now ready to move on from being a “throwaway culture.” Said Piñera: “A plastic bag is produced in seconds, used in minutes and takes 400 years to biodegrade.”
Upon the measure’s ratification, Chile’s large retailers and supermarkets were given six months to comply, while smaller businesses have two years to phase out plastic bags and are limited to providing a maximum of two per customer in the interim.
The law was accompanied by a social media and promotional campaign known as #Chaobolsasplasticas. The campaign’s website (http://chaobolsasplasticas.cl) displays a running estimate of the number of plastic bags being produced in the world, text of the law and a list of the 92 Chilean districts where the single-use ban has already been implemented.
Focus on producers urged
While Chile’s law on single-use plastics has drawn praise, Christian Paredes, an attorney with Fundación Terram, a social, economic and environmental advocacy group based in Santiago, calls the legislation insufficient, pointing out that the penalty for plastic use targets the consumer rather than the producer. The law also requires implementation and administration at a local and municipal level, even though it is federal legislation. Thus, Paredes says, implementation could vary from municipality to municipality. “The ban on single-use plastic was a good first step, but so much more could have been done,” Paredes says. “You can still go to the supermarket and buy items packaged in plastic, the only difference being that the bag you carry the items out in is biodegradable or reusable. If the producers of the plastics aren’t taxed, they will continue to produce plastic packaging.”
Miguel Rivas, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Mexico, agrees that while increased public discourse and awareness have begun spurring action, most measures passed in Latin America fail to penalize upstream producers of plastic. “The responsibility needs to be passed on to the producers or those who manufacture or distribute their products in highly contaminating containers or packages,” Rivas says.
To spotlight companies responsible for plastic pollution in the world’s seas, Greenpeace and the group Break Free From Plastic this year conducted 239 beach and ocean cleanups in 42 countries, collecting 187,851 pieces of discarded plastic. The cleanups, including 16 on Mexican beaches and one each in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Jamaica, sought to answer the question: “Who are the generators of this trash that is ending up on the beach?”
In North and South America, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé brands were the top polluters identified, accounting for 64% and 70%, respectively, of all the branded plastic pollution recovered in those regions, according to the Oct. 9 report. The three brands’ plastics also topped the audit’s list worldwide, with Coke-branded plastic pollution located in 40 of the 42 participating countries. “The goal of these audits is to reveal that the generation and production of plastic waste goes far beyond the reach of consumers,” says Magdalena Donoso, Latin America coordinator of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), which participated in the audit. “There are almost no limitations, control or restrictions on those responsible for producing these useless plastics, which are the corporations. There need to be consequences for those creating the waste.”
Latin America countries are following a blueprint generally similar to that being implemented in Chile by acting to eliminate single-use plastics and create legislation to reduce plastic pollution. In Costa Rica, however, a nongovernmental organization is promoting a somewhat more innovative initiative. The group, MarViva, launched a campaign called “Chao Plástico Desechable,” (Bye Disposable Plastic). The name is almost identical to the Chilean campaign’s “Chao Bolsas Plásticas” (Bye Plastic Bags). The goals are similar as well, with one of the Costa Rican campaign objectives, for instance, being to replace single-use plastic with more sustainable options, notes Mariana Blanco, who oversees policy advocacy at MarViva.
The difference is that MarViva is lobbying legislators to establish a public fund, known as Fonasemar, through taxes on plastics production, maritime shipping fees and contributions from sports-fishing operations. If approved by Costa Rica’s unicameral Legislative Assembly, the fund would be used to carry out marine-conservation projects in the country, Blanco says.
“We hope the [Legislative Assembly] makes the fund a priority because, as far as we know, the bill for such a fund is a pioneer, almost at the global level, and would be one of the first ecosystem projects tied to plastics to include an economic component,” Blanco says. “It would put Costa Rica at the vanguard in this type of project.”
Costa Rica’s southern neighbor, Panama, is arguably already at the vanguard when it comes to Central America—at least in terms of legislation. In January, President Juan Carlos Varela signed a law to prohibit the use of single-use plastic bags in commercial establishments. Supermarkets, pharmacies and retailers were given 18 months to stop handing out plastic bags, switch to polyethylene alternatives and offer reusable bags for sale to consumers, while larger wholesale operations were given 24 months to comply. As in Chile, if businesses fail to observe the new regulation, they will face fines that will be used to finance environmental and recycling programs, according to the law.
In northern Central America, Guatemala seeks similar nationwide legislation to ban single-use plastic bags and straws, says Luisa Cifuentes, executive director of the Authority for the Sustainable Management of the Lake Atitlán Basin and Surroundings, a government-run agency known as Amsclae. Since 2016, the organization has campaigned in communities around Lake Atitlán to reduce or ban use of plastic bags, straws and styrofoam. So far, two of the 15 villages in the basin region—San Pedro La Laguna and Santa Lucía Utatlán—have outlawed single-use plastic bags. In August, the colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala approved a ban on plastic bags and straws as well as styrofoam plates and cups.
“It is difficult to take plastic away from people that need it for their businesses, and for that reason there are several municipalities that have not agreed to eliminate plastic bags,” says Cifuentes, the executive director of Amsclae. “There is a desire to reduce plastic, but there is a long, long way to go.”
Others following suit
Similar strategies are being implemented in South American countries such as Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Brazil. In Brazil, the city of São Paulo banned plastic bags in 2015, and this year Rio de Janeiro became the country’s first city to prohibit plastic straws. In Argentina, Buenos Aires prohibited the use or sale of disposable shopping bags in 2017, and other cities, such as Rosario and Bariloche, have also passed measures to bar single-use plastics.
In September, a Colombian legislator proposed a bill to eliminate the production, import, sale and distribution of single-use plastic bags in the country by 2030. The same month, another legislator proposed a nationwide ban on plastic straws. Colombia’s Caribbean city of Santa Marta, meanwhile, is drafting legislation that, if passed, would be the country’s first ban on single-use plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam.
Peru has launched a campaign known as “Less Plastic, Longer Life” (#MenosPlásticoMásVida) to generate consumer awareness about plastic contamination. A nationwide ban on plastic bags, approved by an environmental committee of lawmakers in June, is awaiting consideration in the Peruvian Congress.
In Mexico, the states of Veracruz, San Luis Potosí and Baja California Sur have passed legislation to ban plastic bags and straws, as have several municipalities. The Mexican state of Jalisco approved legislation last month to eliminate single-use plastic by 2020, while the state of Hidalgo is working to pass a similar law, according to Greenpeace’s Rivas.
“Without question there is more awareness and sensitivity to plastic in Mexico, but that has to be accompanied by laws and regulation,” Rivas says. “State laws do help, but we need a federal law. In comparison to other Latin American countries, in Mexico we are very behind.”
As the world and Latin America make strides to curb plastic pollution, difficult questions loom. For decades, consumers have made purchases, put goods into plastic bags for transport, then disposed of the bags. The move away from plastic bags will require more than a material change, but also a cultural one, raising the question: What are the alternatives?
“You have to provide alternatives,” said Cifuentes of Amsclae in Guatemala. “You can’t tell a community to stop using plastic if in the community there are no other options.”
In Chile, a company known as Solubag, hopes to provide an answer. Its product, also named Solubag and introduced in the Chilean market in October, is a bag made of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) that dissolves in water. The bag contains no toxic additives and is completely biodegradable, the company says.
“The principal alternative to plastic bags is the use of reusable bags, such as those made of vegetable fibers or paper,” Guillermo González, head of the Circular Economy Office of the Ministry of the Environment of Chile, said in an e-mail response to questions from EcoAméricas. “We look principally to promote the reuse of bags, which generates a change of purchasing habits [and] which could lead to reuse of other types of packaging.”
In Costa Rica, Somos Casa Armonía, a small retailer that opened in 2017, sells steel water bottles, biodegradable and reusable bags, bamboo toothbrushes and kits that include four 24-centimeter steel straws and a small brush for cleaning. The shop describes itself as “an invitation to change our consumption habits to live in harmony with the planet.”
Greenpeace’s Rivas says that cutting plastic consumption requires a change of attitude and habits similar to that underlying anti-smoking efforts. In the 1970s and 1980s, smoking cigarettes in public spaces was commonplace and not considered a hazard to the health of others. After numerous studies highlighted the risks of secondary smoke, cigarette smoking was prohibited in public spaces and, over time, tobacco use diminished.
He feels the same can be accomplished with single-use plastics.
“It is now being noticed how grave the problem of plastic contamination has become and that radical measures are required to control it,” Rivas says. “It is a process of changing habits, and the need is more urgent every day.”
- Adam D. Williams
Index image: U.N.: 13 million tons of plastic enter the oceans annually. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)