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Editorial | Plug plastic ban loopholes

Published:Wednesday | June 12, 2024 | 12:06 AM
Lunch being served in a plastic container at a cookshop.
Lunch being served in a plastic container at a cookshop.

The Government is acting sensibly in banning the use of plastic containers in domestic food packaging.

But the administration will have to display greater creativity and sharper vigilance in ensuring that the loopholes are closed, than when it restricted the use of Styrofoam for the same purpose more than four years ago. Suppliers and consumers must not be able to merely reach for some other petroleum-derived product to do the job. The ban has to be robustly policed.

At the same time, the Government has to accelerate efforts to recycle plastics in Jamaica, which is likely to require the rationalisation of, or at least bringing under the same umbrella, the agencies charged with this project.

In other words, it seems, on its face, an anomaly, illogical even, that responsibility for the environment as well as the Government’s involvement in Jamaica’s single organised recycling project should fall under Matthew Samuda, a minister in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, while solid waste management and regulation is within the portfolio of the local government and rural affairs minister, Desmond McKenzie.

The discrepancies are apparent: the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) carries the mien of a wound-up, fuddy-duddy institution, moving fast, going nowhere and bereft of ideas. Mr Samuda, at least with respect to plastics, seems thoughtful and solutions-oriented.

WORRISOME PROBLEM

And plastics, in Jamaica and globally, is a big and worrisome problem. For instance, the stuff accounts for around 17 per cent (around 183,000 tonnes) of the solid waste Jamaica produces each year. Very little of this is recycled – which, by Mr Samuda’s calculation, is primarily the 30 per cent of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles made in the island that go to make new products.

Two years ago, Recycling Partners of Jamaica, the joint-venture recycling initiative between the Government and industry, estimated that 800 million plastic bottles were produced locally each year. Most of the rest, about 560 million plastic bottles end up in landfills, or are otherwise discarded – usually in gutters, gullies and rivers. Huge amounts find their way to the sea.

This, of course, does not include large portions of plastics imported into Jamaica in the form of packaging, products and product additives. Much of these contribute to the degradation of the national and global ecology, and at great cost to human health, especially when microplastics find their way in the food chain.

This is part of the context in which Jamaica moved to restrict plastics, starting with its 2019 ban on the distribution of certain sizes of single-use plastic shopping bags, which up to then, Jamaicans, on average, used around 500 annually, or over 1.4 billion in total. That restriction has held up reasonably well, although leaks are obvious.

The same efficacy was not achieved with the ban, a year later, on Styrofoam (polystyrene), particularly those used for food packaging and serving. The food industry soon found cheap, chemical-based, and often non-biodegradable workaround, explained on the grounds that environmentally friendly alternatives were either too expensive or were disliked by their customers.

GAPING HOLES

A big part of the problem, though, was that the regulations had gaping holes, which Mr Samuda is now seeking to close, starting July 1, with an explicit ban on PET, polycarbonate, polyvinyl chloride and, in some cases, HDPE food containers.

These types of plastics were never intended to substitute for Styrofoam, and the ban, according to Mr Samuda, held for eight months, until the loopholes were discovered.

“...Somebody read the regulations and said, ‘Ha! They’ve forgotten something’, and you had PET and other plastic containers,” Mr Samuda said.

Which means that the legal drafting has to be tighter this time, capable of resisting the poking and prodding of those searching for weak spots.

In the meantime, the Government has to get substantially better at managing the country’s solid waste – especially plastics – beyond the whingeing and attempts at citizen-shaming that have become the forte of the NSWMA and its parent ministry, as substitutes for coherent policy and sustained action in creating a thoughtful, modern and efficient solid waste management system.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness should urgently consider his options on this front, including moving with dispatch to make garbage separation mandatory at government ministries and agencies, as he proposed last December.

Mr Holness has good political and economic reasons to follow through on these matters. He will recall that people’s dissatisfaction with their garbage collection was among the reasons cited for his party’s relatively weak performance in February’s municipal elections.

Further, the plastics that help to block many of the island’s gullies and drains contribute to flooding that undermine infrastructure, the cost of whose repair divert money from other areas where funding is short. The unvirtuous cycle is exacerbated when poor infrastructure and an absence of funding for other critical areas further frustrate voters.

Yet, if the Government gets recycling right, it would not only contribute to enhancing Jamaica’s and the global environment, but open new opportunities for employment and earnings.