By Alexander Shaw, Columnist
In case you were lost in all the merriment that comes with the season, it is now worthwhile to note that the ban on single-use plastic bags, styrofoam and plastic straws actually took effect in Jamaica yesterday, January 1.
It happened at a time when the world is watching fearfully while Mother Nature takes her course. Her signs are real and visible, outweighing any political rhetoric to chide a move aimed at protecting not just her beauty but her ability to sustain her users over the long-term.
The ban is a move to secure endangered lives in the Caribbean and the world at large.
Jamaica is not alone. Other small countries including the Bahamas, Dominica, Belize and Bermuda are trying to keep pace with the global trend of shrinking our environmental footprints.
In 2016 when the motion to ban single-use plastic bags was tabled in our parliament, Antigua and Barbuda was ahead of us, imposing a ban on plastic bags in that same year.
Can we now complain that we are surprised by the move? To answer this question in the affirmative is unreasonable.
The effects of plastic pollution are dire and barefaced. Scientists estimate that more than eight million metric tons of plastics are entering our ocean every year, so much so that our wildlife and marine creatures are confused, consuming them as food.
It gets a little more grave and unsmiling. Human beings are consuming plastic – and I don’t mean ‘plastic rice’. Scientific researchers have confirmed the existence of microplastics in our table salt. How does this affect us? Chemicals leached from plastics have the potential to disturb the endocrine system and thyroid hormones, proving destructive to children and women of reproductive age.
Be that as it may, let us narrow down things here in Jamaica.
We know this was coming, but, to announce a ban in September 2018 effective for January 2019 – less than four months apart, is too ill-conceived and rushed. We are talking about a commodity that has survived the test of time.
Whilst we are dealing mainly with the negatives of single-use plastic bags, it must be borne in mind that any alternative will cost Jamaicans more. To say it will not is disingenuous. Plastic has survived the test of times because it is strong yet lightweight.
Another argument in favour of plastic bag is that it is environmentally cheaper than alternatives such as those derived from the cutting down of trees. In fact, a 2016 study done by Trucost revealed that the environmental cost of using plastic in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials.
Did we need more time to sell the goal to the man on the streets and consider a suitable alternative? Yes. Single-use plastic is not the only pollutant. As a consequence, Jamaicans must be properly educated about the effects of their actions on the environment.
For far too long, our people misuse the environment, then complain about unrelenting weather patterns and climate change.
A wholesale ban shy of adequate public education and an acceptance by John Public of the vision is futile.
I laud the move, as I believe it is a bold step in the right direction. However, we must face the reality that timing is important, and the time given in this case was too limited.
What about the agencies involved? Are they ready for the take-off?
The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and the National Solid Waste Management Authority must now step up to the plate and understand the importance of their roles if this move is to reap its intended benefits.
If ‘Solid Waste’ is slow and erratic on the job, plastics will continue to sweep the streets.
It was not long ago that the Auditor General (2010) reported NEPA as an inefficient government agency, that needed to adopt a more aggressive approach towards protection of the environment. Since then, NEPA has been burning the midnight oil, but complains about a shortage of resources that stifles its best efforts to adequately police the environment.
Let us not even mention the Jamaica Customs Authority that will have to be the vanguard against illegal plastic importation. You dare not probe their modus operandi as they, to my knowledge, have not been the subject of any adverse audit report. Nonetheless, many outlawed items are being smuggled into our island, and eventually are filling our shops, streets and homes. That’s the reason for the frequent seizure of counterfeit items – especially clothes and cigarettes – by police. The corruption existing at our ports must be addressed to effectively block the long list of banned items, now including single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and styrofoam materials.
To wrap up, we must concede that plastic pollution is wreaking havoc all over the world and we are not exempted from the effects. However, Jamaicans in general, including the agencies involved in enforcement of the ban, needed more time to set things right. Wider public education needed to have taken place before the imposition of the ban. I rest my case.
Alexander L. Shaw is an educator and attorney-at-law. The views he expressed are not necessarily those of The Beacon. Email your feedback to him at Legalservices.firstname.lastname@example.org and to The Beacon at email@example.com
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