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Banning single-use plastics and Styrofoam may prove ineffective without planning and enforcement

By Adele Ramos
Freelance Reporter

Belize has joined a global wave by committing to curtail the use of single-use plastics, styrofoam and plastic cutlery by 22 April 2019, but a report just released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) captioned Single-use plastics: A Roadmap for sustainability, points to challenges already being faced by countries which have implemented bans and levies within their jurisdictions.
The Government of Belize announced several weeks ago that Cabinet had on 20 March, 2018 approved the phase-out of the items deemed to be problematic, both for the environment as well as human health and safety. The Government also noted that almost 20% of solid waste management costs are incurred to dispose of plastic and styrofoam.

According to UNEP, each year the 7.6 billion people who live on this planet consume 5 trillion plastic bags that are petroleum-based and it can take more than 500 years for those wastes to begin to degrade. However, when plastics do break down, they disintegrate into microplastics, which can enter the food chain, either via sea food harvested from polluted waters or from livestock which accidentally consume them while grazing. The end result is that humans can become the very reservoir for a build up of invisible plastic wastes which they create.

Only about 9% of plastics are recycled, and you’d be surprised to know that the most voluminous plastic waste globally are actually cigarette butts. Cigarette filters contain cellulose acetate, which is a kind of plastic. Next in line are plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids and straws/stirrers. This is according to the UNEP report which furthermore notes that Asia generates the most waste globally, while the US, Japan and Europe produce the most plastic package waste per capita.

So what’s the big deal? The report notes that plastics can block waterways and exacerbate flooding, but they can also provide a breeding ground for vectors that spread diseases, including dengue and malaria. Strewn in the water, single use plastics can also be mistaken for food and eaten by endangered sea turtles and other marine life, such as dolphins. These ingested plastics release toxins that can pass into the animal’s tissue and find its way into the human food chain.

Styrofoam may also be a health hazard. UNEP cautions that they can release carcinogens such as styrene and benzene into foods when used by vendors to package food. These toxins, which can leech into food and drinks, can damage the nervous system, lungs and reproductive system.

When plastics are burned by countries which struggle with waste management, they release toxins such as furan and dioxin, which are also harmful to health.
The biggest toll which plastics take is perhaps the damage it has been reputed to cause in the marine environment. According to UNEP, which notes that the economic damage by plastic is vast, the tab is US$13 billion each year.
Belize is not the only country considering a ban. In fact, Antigua and Barbuda already has bans on single-use plastics and Styrofoam, implemented in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Countries like Rwanda and Kenya have already gone ahead in implementing theirs well ahead of the global wave. According to UNEP, today, more than 60 countries have instituted bans and levies to curb single-use plastics as well as Styrofoam.

However, UNEP goes on to cite concerns with enforcing such bans. It notes that monitoring has been inadequate in countries which have imposed the ban. For half of them, there is no date to indicate how the bans are performing, while for 20% the measure has resulted in little or no change on the ground. For the remaining 30%, there was a measurable decline in the use of the pollutants within the first year.

The main problems are lack of enforcement as well as the lack of affordable alternatives to single-use plastics. These will likely be the very same challenges with which Belize will have to contend, as so much revolves around the ubiquitous plastics and Styrofoam, especially food packaging.
UNEP notes that in places where the ban has been put in place, some have engaged in smuggling and black market use of the banned items. Some have opted to use thicker versions of plastic bags not covered by the ban. These, in some cases, renders the ban ineffective but more than that exacerbates the environmental problems which some countries face.

UNEP underscores that the bans can work with proper planning and enforcement and the document mentioned earlier can serve as tool for policy makers.
“Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it,” said Eri Solheim, Head of UN Environment, in the cited report.

Guatemala last year introduced a partial ban for San Pedro La Laguna and four other locations, while Panama instituted its ban earlier this year. Meanwhile, Costa Rica has adopted a national strategy to drastically reduce the use of disposable plastics by 2021.

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