Size DOES Matter!

Small plastics such as plastic bottle caps, straws, cigarette butts and food wrappers topped the garbage collected from the coastal areas of 23 Caribbean countries in 2016. As reported by the Ocean Conservancy, just over 40, 000 citizen scientists, through hard work and probably a lot of sweating, removed over 400, 000 pounds of solid waste from around 900 km of coastline.

In the region, out of the over 2 million items collected, plastic beverage bottles reigned supreme, totaling an increase of 36% collected from 2015. These represented 22% of all plastic drinking bottles collected worldwide and 14/22% of that came from Jamaica (225070 bottles). Consequently, 90% of the bottles came from Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic.

Plastic Bottles Top Again
Plastic bottles topped marine litter items in Caribbean (Illustration by Jamilla Sealy, 2018)

The top 10 items collected worldwide has changed slightly between 2015 and 2016 with foam takeaway containers creeping slyly onto the world list, replacing 9th place metal bottle caps. In the region, the number of people who participated increased by 12% which may have been attributed to the addition of countries like Sint Maarten, Cuba, Curaçao, Montserrat, St. Lucia and Suriname; an 8% increase in the weight collected and a 40% increase in the number of items collected. Cigarette butts are the only items that decreased in number from 2015 in the region. On the other side of the spectrum, straws and plastic grocery bags increased by over 50%. I am curious to see what last year’s results will bring when released.

Table 1: Top 5 Items found in 2016

Rank Item
1 Plastic Beverage Bottles
2 Plastic Bottle Caps
3 Cigarette Butts
4 Straws
5 Food Wrappers

The problem of littering and dumping of single-use plastics is so huge worldwide that the theme this year for World Environment Day is #BeatPlasticPollution. Some countries have already pledged to ban these items in the region like Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, The Bahamas, Belize and St. Kitts and Nevis. On a small island it is important that we minimise our waste since limited land equals limited landfill space. Dirtying up our land means reduced resilience to climate change impacts.

These plastics found in the marine environment can affect human health and wellbeing, tourism and fishing industry, food security, public infrastructure among others. It can also injure or kill animals through them swallowing trash or being entangled in it. Additionally it has created dead zones found under floating plastic islands currently in all oceans.

SDGs
SDGs related to waste management

In an effort to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, there are several choices to curb plastic pollution:

  • Use plastic alternatives like disposable containers made of plant materials.
  • Use less plastic items
  • Reuse or repurpose plastic items
  • Have regular community clean ups and education of young people
  • Signage and enforcement of laws and fines

My personal favourite is simply not littering or dumping! With hurricane season underway, we would not want our drains clogged to make ourselves worse off when the rain comes. I always admire the few people who take action to help everyone survive a little longer through participating in Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). High five!

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The Thirst is Real!

The heat has been quite unbearable for the past year which were the hottest 14 consecutive months on record. Could this be why the marine debris generated from the beverage industry topped the 2015 finds during the Caribbean segment of the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC)?

In the recently released 2015 Trash Free Seas report of the Ocean Conservancy’s ICC, marine debris was removed from beaches in 16 Caribbean countries. Just over 36 000 citizen scientists removed about 400 000 pounds of solid waste from beaches and the marine environment.

Table 1: Top 5 items found in the Caribbean

Rank

Item Percentage
1 Plastic Beverage Bottles 28.4%
2 Cigarette Butts 16.5%
3 Plastic Bottle Caps 13.7%
4 Glass Beverage Bottles 7.7%
5 Metal Bottle Caps 6.5%

From the table above, four out of the top five items originated from the beverage industry. Even more worrying, is that one-quarter of the plastic beverage bottles collected worldwide, came from the Caribbean. In addition, the amount of money that could have possibly been made through recycling these bottles alone could have paid for a small car (12500 USD) with just over 60% of the bottles collected from Jamaica.

Furthermore, sixty percent (60%) of the weight of marine debris collected in the region came from Guyana and Puerto Rico combined. On the other hand, in Guyana, there was a significantly higher density of 21225 pounds per km, while in Puerto Rico, there were only 293 pounds per km. This means that more garbage was found in a smaller area in Guyana (4.8km) than in Puerto Rico (410.1km). That is extremely disquieting since none of other countries could even get near to 10 000 pounds per km.

The ICC, the largest volunteer effort in the world, volunteers from service clubs, youth-led organisations such as the Caribbean Youth Environment Network (CYEN) and government agencies coordinate the cleanups and schools, public and private sector play their part to clean up the mess that others make. Not only do they rid the beaches of debris, but they also record the very data that go into the reports.

But why litter or dump? Some have the ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome where once their houses and yards are clean, they would not mind dumping their waste onto other persons’ properties. Some think it is convenient to litter rather than try to find a trash can. On the other hand, there are some countries with exorbitant taxes coupled with inadequate collection services and no recycling initiatives, which does not help the situation.

Another key point is that while littering and dumping can affect your own country, it could become problematic for others as well. This is because trash can travel along ocean currents and wash up on the coasts of other countries. Therefore, sometimes during cleanups, trash from other countries are found, especially on the east and south coasts of the Lesser Antilles.

All things considered, knowing and doing is not the same thing. Persons must realise that there is a cost to dumping and littering which they are already paying for. When you dump or litter, you and other persons can become ill, you are paying for healthcare, you are paying for the cleanup services, you are paying for tourism maintenance, you are paying for cleaner safer water and you are paying for educational programmes on the harms of dumping and littering. So you choose. You can save or even gain money from not littering or dumping or continue to waste your money.