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 should 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. Let us all redouble our efforts at reducing our plastic consumption and use more paper bags. We only get one chance at protecting our environment.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.