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70% to 85% of the garbage in the Caribbean Sea comes from land-based activities and the majority is made up of plastics. Along with runoff from agrochemicals and domestic sewage, plastic is one of the most worrying pollutants in the Greater Caribbean region.
Governments are taking notice. Across the region, some have banned single-use plastics, including plastic bags and Styrofoam, and others are working on legislation or programs to reduce them.
Antigua and Barbuda took the first step in 2016 with a five-phase approach to ditching plastics. After extensive consultation with stakeholders, they decided to incorporate the ban into existing legislation rather than create new laws. They then ran the “Make a Difference, One Bag at a Time” campaign and listed alternative materials approved by the government, such as bagasse. As a result of these actions, the proportion of plastic that reaches landfills decreased from 19.5% of waste in 2006 to 4.4% in 2017.
The momentum continues. More than 18 territories have banned single-use plastics or Styrofoam products, while three countries have locally introduced bans, two countries have announced bans for 2020 and 2021, 14 are discussing it within government, and four have started public consultations.
The environmental, social and economic impacts of these wastes on the environment are well known: they obstruct drains, thus proliferating mosquito breeding sites and increasing the risk of transmission of diseases such as dengue; they break down into microplastics that can enter the food chain through soils and fish; and surface pollution on beaches affects tourism and recreational activities.
As global awareness of the effects of this material increases, the convenience of plastic seems less and less attractive. Several awareness campaigns have emerged in recent years, calling on governments and citizens to action.
“Our planet is awash in harmful plastic waste. (…) There are already more microplastics in the seas than stars in our galaxy. From remote islands to the Arctic, nowhere is left untouched. If current trends continue, by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic than fish. The message is simple: reject disposable plastic. It rejects what it cannot reuse. Together, we can chart a path to a cleaner and greener world ”–United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
Clean Seas: the largest global alliance against marine litter
In February 2017, UN Environment launched the Clean Seas campaign to accelerate action by governments, civil society and the private sector against marine litter, especially single-use plastics.
As of April 2019, 60 governments representing more than 60% of the world's coastline, including nine in the Caribbean, had signed up for Clean Seas. Many have pledged to protect the oceans by pushing for recycling and reducing the consumption of single-use plastics, while some have created marine reserves and adopted waste management plans.
Secretariat of the Cartagena Convention: a framework for action
The Cartagena Convention for the Conservation and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region is the only legally binding environmental agreement in the region. The Caribbean Environment Program of UN Environment hosts the secretariat of this treaty and supports the implementation of the Protocol on the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from land-based sources and activities, and the Regional Action Plan for the Management of Marine Debris. This includes supporting national and regional marine litter projects, as well as promoting national legal and policy reforms.
The Caribbean Environment Program created an interactive map in 2018 to track legislative changes regarding plastics.
In 2017, the Caribbean Environment Program partnered with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Peace Corps, and the UN Environment Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean to launch the Litter-Free Water Initiative. The alliance, which was first piloted in Jamaica and Panama, aims to prevent waste generated on land from entering river basins, coastal waters and the Caribbean Sea.
In Jamaica, the initiative focused on recycling, and raising awareness and education in the community, while in Panama activities were organized to improve solid waste management and prevent garbage from reaching the sea.
The lessons of this project have been incorporated into national and regional efforts coordinated by the Secretariat. The report and lessons learned were presented at the 18th Intergovernmental Meeting and the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Cartagena Convention, held in June 2019 in Honduras.
The links made with government programs addressing solid waste management and promoting partnerships between civil society and the private sector in both countries are the highlights of these initiatives.
United Nations information