Globally more than one trillion plastic bags are used annually by the more than 7 billion people on the planet. We use plastic bags daily even without making the connection between our quality of life and the negative impact discarded plastic bags has on our environment. According to some reports more than seventy per cent of all plastic bags used are non biodegradable and forms the basis for severe damage to the environment which inevitable affects the quality of life on the planet. Abandoned plastic bags pollute the soil and water, increase greenhouse gas emission and undoubtedly kill thousands of marine animals. Plastic bags also remain toxic for hundreds of years even after they break down. Plastic is harmful because of the chemicals found in it. One such harmful chemical is phthalates. Phthalates are chemicals used in many plastics to make them soft or flexible. Exposure to this chemical is a cause for concern since in some quarters it is linked to declining human sperm production. In many societies, there is a significant increase in the number of respiratory cases such as Asthma along with an increase in our usage of plastic bags. Surprisingly, plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. On any given day the destructive nature of useless plastic can be seen across Jamaica. Plastic is strewn alongside the roadside, coastline and litter many communities in this beautiful island. Our obsession for all things plastic, whether it’s the shopping bags, bottled water, or bag juice has created an environmental nightmare for the society. Our beaches and streets are under attack with lightweight plastic bags commonly referred to as scandal bags. It is indeed scandalous that we have not acted in a manner to curtail the individual consumption of plastic bags per citizen. This is an eyesore that needs not be; however, as a society matters of the environment is usually not high on the priority list. The Jamaican society urgently needs some policy guideline that will limit the number of plastic bags used by our retailers, consumers and business establishments. How many of us as consumers are aware that there is a limit in the use of microwavable plastic containers? This number is usually encased at the bottom of the container. If this is not adhere to the plastic breaks down into the food inside the container causing many health issues including cancer.
Recently, the European Union (EU) Parliament recommended some
guidelines for all twenty eight (28) members of the European Union to curtail
usage of plastic bags per citizen. The EU has proposed that by 2025 citizens
will be limited to 40 plastic bags each year. I must admit we are a far way
from such an optimistic goal, however, we must begin somewhere. There is no
need for us in Jamaica to reinvent the wheel in this regards, however, the
leadership is lacking in this area like in so many spheres of public life in
Jamaica we lack courageous and bold leadership.
Interestingly, within the EU, Denmark and Finland are the
best performing countries with an estimated four (4) plastic bags per
citizen. It is a scary idea to think of
the estimated plastic bag count for each Jamaican citizen per year. On the
other hand, Portugal, Latvia, Slovenia and Poland are among the worst
performing EU countries with an estimated 466 plastic bags consumed per citizen
per year. I suspect Jamaica is close to
those worst performing EU countries regarding plastic bags usage per citizen
per year. China alone uses over 3 billion plastic bags daily; while in the
United States of America over 100 billion plastic bags are used per year. With the invention of the Microwave Oven, we
have witness an increase in the usage of plastic to heat food items and then as
a storage mechanism. Most reports indicate that more than ten per cent of
household waste in plastic. What can we do? We need to move urgently towards using
bio-degradable plastic bags which are more environmentally friendly. We must be
realist in this narrative, plastic bags have their functions and we will never
be able to totally eliminate them. For example, plastic bags are needed for
fresh meat and fish. We need to have the necessary legislation passed by the
government to reduce waste prevention and the number of plastic bags used by
every Jamaican citizen. We could appeal to retailers to voluntary stop distributing
or reduce the number of plastic bags given to their customers. Where this fails
or falls short the state could impose a fine/tax on retailers who continue to
use plastic bags. We could reward shoppers with coupons/discounts who refuse
from using plastic bags. We should encourage retailers and wholesalers to desist from
using lightweight plastic bags by giving them a tax incentive.
Additionally we would need to get all the stakeholders
involved to discuss the issue. The manufacturers of plastic bags are an
integral part of the discourse. They provide employment for many Jamaicans so
we need to be mindful of this. However, those who make the plastic bags could
shift emphasis to bio-degradable plastic bags. While some jobs will probably be
lost initially by those who manufacture plastic/scandal bags this would shift
would also create more and better paying jobs than lost. This is a great
opportunity for some investor who is thinking of which industry to put his/her
money into. There is certainly a critical need for environmental conscious
investors to put some of their resources in recycling plants as well. Investing
in the technology to recycle our waste not only forms an integral part of waste
disposal and management, but will also provide employment for more Jamaicans and
improve our quality of life. It is a shame that a country this size has not
moved ahead in terms of recycling some of its waste. The time to act is now to
reverse our throw away plastic bag culture as well as our littering culture in
general. The time for a campaign against the widespread use of plastic begins
with each one of us. We need to encourage our consumers to use reusable
shopping bags not only to save our environment but to save ourselves from the toxic
plastic gives off.
As consumers of plastic we must make a concerted and practical effort to reduce our dependency and consumption of this product which we all find convenient.
The time has come for us to invest more in recycling our refuse and garbage and save the environment. We have spent too much time talking about recycling. It is now time for action. Mother Earth can be very unforgiving if forced to take action on her own.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.