Working towards a plastics solution
“Plastic, a material invented to last for ever, can no longer be used to make products intended to be thrown away. There is no away.”
The excessive production, usage and disposal of plastic materials has serious consequences for the environment. Every year, about eight million metric tonnes of it ends up in the ocean, where it can harm fish and wildlife through ingestion and entanglement. Plastic permeates the food chain, threatens ecosystems and may harm human health.
The reduction of plastic usage has therefore become a significant global challenge. The number of public policies on single-use plastics has more than tripled since 2010, with many more expanding to include other disposable plastic products.
Policies on controlling single-use plastics come mainly in the form of either bans or levies, with the former being predominant. Single-use plastics are prevalent in Bermuda's restaurants and stores. Of the 33 food-service businesses surveyed, only 11 have begun efforts in reducing plastic consumption by introducing biodegradable takeout products, ie, paper straws, corn starch cutlery, compostable produce bags, paper bio-bowls.
The majority of businesses continue to use single-use plastic products for takeaway use. Twenty out of the 33 commercial retail stores surveyed use plastic carry-out bags when customers purchased a product. Only eight stores offered bags made from biodegradable or recycled paper. Interestingly, two shops provide reusable bags made of recycled materials and one shop sells reusable bags for a fee of $2.
BEST proposes two options by which the Government of Bermuda can approach this pressing issue.
This report concludes that pairing a ban with the lowering of import duties on alternative products will be the most effective method of plastic reduction. In addition, effective public consultation, education and messaging will be needed to support the transition away from single-use plastics. All Bermudian stakeholders, citizens, Government, industry and non-governmental organisations, must come together to create innovative and effective plastic-management practices.
Assessing the Problem
The “holistic” impact of plastic pollution not only includes the devastating effect that waste plastics have on our marine ecological systems, but also the direct and indirect impacts on society. Bermuda's economy, culture, beauty and lifestyle depend on our surrounding seas. However, the amenity values of our pristine beaches to locals and tourists are under threat with the accumulation of plastic waste in the Sargasso Sea. On a global scale, marine plastic will drastically diminish the value of marine ecosystem services that provide benefits to society approximating $50 trillion per year. A comprehensive study completed in 2010 presented an analysis of ship-survey data collected over 22 years in the western North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The study's conclusions deem the Sargasso Sea as a “high-plastic region”.
Most of the plastics that float in the open ocean consist of irregular bits of older plastic, termed microplastics, which result from the gradual breakdown of large plastic items and are less than five millimetres in size. They may come from items that have been in the sea for decades, perhaps from the start of plastic production in the 1950s.
Since that time, more than 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic have been created on the planet. An estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic entered the world's oceans from land-based sources in 2010 alone, and the flux of plastics to the oceans is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025.
In addition to marine life, the pervasive presence of plastic also affects humans. Research on microplastics and human health is an emerging field, and the evidence is mounting that humans are increasingly exposed to microplastics — broken-down pieces of plastic less than 5mm in length. Recent reports suggest that microplastics are entering the human body through the air we breathe, the water we drink and the foods we eat.
Evidence of toxicity has raised concern about the chemistry of plastic polymers and common additives in plastic products. In the marine environment, microplastics may increase in toxicity over time through their absorption of persistent organic pollutants, a toxic group of industrial chemicals, pesticides and wastes that accumulate on the ocean's surface. Persistent organic pollutants are able to enter the marine-food supply via microplastics and become more and more concentrated in fishes as they move up the food chain. Although the effects of consumption on humans remains understudied, the existing evidence should foster a cause for concern and closer attention to this matter.
Although removing some marine plastic from the ocean is possible, it is time-intensive, expensive and inefficient. Thus, the better course of action is to limit the use of plastic immediately and improve waste-management methods. Single-use plastics are of particular concern, given their propensity to enter the environment as litter. Instituting measures to phase out single-use plastic usage is a first step to addressing the “throwaway culture” existing within the present linear economy.
The value of single-use plastic bags and other similar products resides almost entirely in convenience to consumers and as a very low-cost means for manufacturers, distributors and retailers to increase consumer purchases. The choice of these products as a starting point for engaging the community is appropriate because they touch every consumer, and many practical and affordable alternatives exist. The fight against single-use plastics and styrofoam has been gathering steam over the past years, and the Caribbean has been one of the regions taking the lead in this area. Island nations throughout the Caribbean and beyond have implemented successful bans on single-use plastics, with many more progressing towards this goal.
Nations that have enacted a ban targeting various forms of single-use plastics include Jamaica, Turks & Caicos, Dominica, Antigua & Barbuda, Grenada, Barbados, St Lucia, Guadeloupe, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Aruba, Haiti and Puerto Rico. Moreover, all remaining islands in the Caribbean, excluding Cuba, are working on bans. Bermuda needs to step up and follow the examples of success in the elimination of many single-use plastic items in similar island nations.
Public concern over plastic in 2019
A World Bank report has found that Bermuda is the highest waste generator per capita in the “North American region”, producing more waste per capita than any other country in the world.
Although there are various factors affecting this number, such as our tourism economy and the need for packaging for trans-shipment, the amount should be nonetheless shocking and concerning. As Bermudians, we must commit to a better future for generations to come, and this starts with tackling the waste crisis.
Nearly 8,000 citizens have signed a Change.org online petition calling for a ban on single-use plastics in Bermuda. Recently, our students have taken to the streets and the lawn of the Cabinet Building to express concern over their future and demand Bermudian action for the climate. Positively, numerous supermarkets and businesses on the island have already switched to alternative products such as paper straws, recycled paper bags and home-compostable produce bags.
Many national and international retailers are moving to reduce plastic packaging in order to reduce wastes, owing to rising customer demands.
• Sophia Collis was an intern with Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce this summer. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Development from McGill University and is volunteering at the Centre for Environment and Community Assets Development in Hanoi, Vietnam. This is the first in a series of articles speaking on the need to reduce plastic waste in Bermuda