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July 29, 2020

Navigating the Plastic Tide


Written By: Andrea Polanco 


“As soon as we made that first incision into the stomach you saw plastic immediately. It was just full of plastic. You didn’t have to dig around. It was absolutely compacted with plastic bags.”

A dead reptile’s stomach full of plastics – that’s what Operations Manager of the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary, Chris Summers, found when ACES conducted a necropsy in May on an adult American Crocodile in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. 

Summers says, “We were horrified. I had never seen anything like this. This was eighty-two plastic bags. I have never seen anything like that. It is insane. Absolutely insane. This animal starved to death on a full stomach. It is insanity.”

The crocodile was emaciated and suffering when ACES found him. The bags were compacted and prevented the intake of food which led to starvation. More than seventy of the bags were chicken packaging. The adult crocodile had to be euthanized. While illegal feeding may be a reason why the croc ingested so many large plastic bags, this is a stark reminder of the many dangers of plastics. This is a pollutant that is bad for our environment. Plastics kill. 

Plastic pollution is a global problem – and perhaps we have taken too much comfort in that fact – this is just another pressing environmental issue that the world is unable to control. Maybe we have underestimated just how much waste we generate individually and so we have overlooked the staggering volume of waste we produce as a country. This underscores that we each must take accountability for our contributions in order to help tackle pollution.

Did you know that collectively, the Caribbean nations produce the most plastic waste per capita in the world? 

A Science Magazine report called “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean” published in 2010 shows that more than ten Caribbean islands were in the top thirty plastic waste producing countries per capita.[1]

Looking closer at home, Our World in Data Plastic Pollution (2018) report shows that Belize’s daily plastic waste generation per person was 0.17 kilograms in 2010. This is two to four times less than the top per capita waste-producing Caribbean countries; however, it is seventeen times higher than India’s per capita waste generation. Simply put, for that year, each person in Belize was producing more plastic waste than each person in India.  

Fast forward to almost ten years later, an article in Forbes shows that ten Caribbean countries are still in the top ten global polluters per person. “Trinidad & Tobago, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Kitts & Nevis, Guyana, Barbados, St. Lucia, Bahamas, Grenada, Anguilla, and Aruba…every year these ten island nations generate more plastic debris than the weight of twenty-thousand space shuttles,” writes Daphne Ewing Chung (Forbes, September 2019) 

In 2017, the Department of the Environment (DOE) found that over three years, Belize imported over two hundred million pieces of single-use plastic bags and fifty-two million pieces of Styrofoam and plastic food containers every year, for each year. That figure doesn’t include local manufacturers who produce an estimated thirty-five million single-use plastic bags and five million pieces of Styrofoam.

When placed in the context of Belize’s population, these figures are astounding. According to the DOE, these numbers roughly translate to each Belizean citizen using an average of eleven single-use plastic bags and three pieces of Styrofoam per week over one year.

A product like the plastic bag started out as a simple invention that was cheap to buy, convenient to carry, and durable. But what the world wasn’t prepared for the environmental degradation, economic implications, as well as the cost of disposal. And that is the big problem with plastic waste, it never truly goes away. And although we know that it never fully decomposes, it is still being released into our natural environment at an alarming rate. 

A 2019 World Bank Report called “Marine Pollution in the Caribbean: Not a Minute to Waste” finds that seventy to eighty-five per cent of marine litter in the Caribbean Sea come from land-based sources. The report states that packaging is the largest contributor to plastic waste and accounts for around forty-two per cent of that waste in the Caribbean. Added to that, countries still struggle to manage solid waste so that increases the chance that plastics and other litter will end up in the ocean in this region. 

This litter is made up of large number of plastics and so it has environmental, social and economic repercussions. Plastic waste blocks waterways; contaminates soil and water; infiltrates the food chain; and affects the sewage system. It is also an aesthetic problem when you think about how it impacts tourism and leisure activities. 

In short, it poses serious threats to animals and human life. Industries and jobs are also at risk, including the multi-billion-dollar revenue that the region’s coastal tourism attracts every year. 

The World Bank Report calls for urgent action to tackle this problem. It contends that some three hundred and twenty tons of plastic waste remains uncollected each year in the Caribbean. Similarly, a concentration of plastics estimated at hundred thousand pieces of plastic per square kilometer was identified in the northeastern Caribbean. 

The Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), along with the Department of Environment (DOE), under the Commonwealth Litter Programme (CLiP), carried out a small survey to get a snapshot of the problem in Belize. The survey was conducted on six beaches in June 2019 and the results showed that seventy per cent of the litter was made of six material types:

  • Plastic pieces (<50cm) – 36.8%
  • Polystyrene (Styrofoam) (<50cm) – 12.3%
  • Bottle caps and lids – 9.3%
  • Bottle glass – 5%
  • Water bags – 3.4%
  • Snack wrappers and chips bag – 3.4%

As Senior Environmental Officer of the Department of the Environment Anthony Mai points out, a single plastic bag on a beach has far-reaching impacts. “It has become a problem because plastic degrades very slowly and so it accumulates into the environment. I always say that if you throw a plastic bag on the ground and you pass at the same location two or three days later and you don’t see that plastic bag, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the bag is not there. The weathering might cause it to break down into fine micro-plastics and once plastic degrades into micro-plastic, it lasts in the environment for a long time.”

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), approximately seventy-five per cent of the micro-plastics in the ocean are smaller pieces from plastic bags, bottles and marine gears. 

Mai emphasizes that these particles can carry harmful substances and affect marine life, “So, in terms of the accumulation of plastics globally, the accumulation of micro-plastics is one of the more serious issues for the time being…the micro-plastics are the plastics that are ingested by various animals. For example, animals living in the sea and when they ingest the plastics it can disrupt pathological functions.”  

Incidentally, humans drink it, eat it, and breathe it in, too. So, how can we reduce the concentration of plastics and micro-plastics on land and in our waters going forward? 

Improved solid waste management and waste infrastructures, such as garbage collection and secure landfills can help. A transition to clean and biodegradable products, coupled with appropriate policies and strong enforcement are also part of the solution.

“Solid Waste Management, in the past, has been one of the biggest challenges for Belize in terms of environmental issues.  But the government has done a lot in terms of ensuring that solid waste is being managed properly. We have a solid waste management plan that is being implemented and every day we reach closer to our goal in terms of solid waste management,” Mai says. 

Belize Solid Waste Management’s records show that Belize generated a total of forty thousand five hundred and eighty-seven metric tons of waste in 2018. Data to illustrate the types of waste generated that year wasn’t readily available but research shows in the past few years plastics and Styrofoam made up nineteen per cent of the national waste taken to the regional sanitary landfill.  And it costs a whopping three point five million dollars a year to manage the waste generated.

We’ve had litter laws since the late nineteen-nineties, but in 2003 and 2005 the Summary Jurisdiction Littering Offenses Violation Tickets Regulations were amended to give more ticketing power to local government.

The regulations say that a person who is issued a violation ticket shall pay a fine of one hundred dollars. If the violation ticket is issued to a business, the fine increases to five hundred dollars. If the tickets are not paid within fifteen days, the violator incurs further penalty fees. But the ticketing of violators doesn’t just have to be the responsibility of police officers, public health officers, and other enforcement personnel. 

Environmental Officer for the DOE Aldo Cansino points out that you can also play your part to help hold polluters accountable, “There is also a provision that, let’s say, for example, you are interested to assist. You can submit your name to the Minister and the Minister can then authorize you to issue tickets as well.”

In 2019 Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria conceded that enforcement of litter laws hasn’t been as successful as they had expected. “That hasn’t worked out as well as we thought. Secondly, the whole issue of littering from outside the city limits and that hasn’t worked out either for many reasons,” Alegria told 7 News Belize.

One of the reasons is because enforcement is collaborative and prosecution for littering offences doesn’t appear to be of major concern for those involved in the process. “The department of the environment is not the only one that is involved, because there is prosecution. We depended a lot and still to a certain degree depend on the police department’s prosecution branch…we were dependent on police and perhaps twenty years that wasn’t a priority. Crime is more what the priority was for DPP, the solicitor office and the prosecution branch of police,” Alegria discloses.

In the past year, two to three litterers have been ticketed under this system.  It’s a shockingly low number when we look at the large number of plastics scattered along shore lines and highways across the country, but Mai says don’t put too much weight on the figure, “The number of people we take to court is not an indication of how effective we are dealing with plastic.”

Although the DOE has an Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Unit, it is grossly under-resourced and understaffed to address the increasing pollution infractions, including illicit dumping and burning of litter.

Mai reveals that enforcement officers must resort to stakeouts and the use of technology to confirm these illicit activities, “To have a successful prosecution, we need strong evidence to show who is dumping garbage – and for us to be the right place at the right time is not easy for us. So, we try to set up sting operations at hot spots and try to set cameras up because eye-witnesses don’t want to testify even though they are the ones who report at times.” 

But the DOE has a strategy that appears to have some impact.  According to Mai and Cansino, the aim is not to haul the violators off to court. They want to change behaviors which will in turn cut littering and illicit dumping. “Between 2016-2017 we set up “no dumping” signs in communities and you saw ninety percent of the time the area remained clean. And what if we don’t provide an avenue for people to properly dispose of garbage; they will dump somewhere else,” Mai remarks. 

Cansino reiterates that the community impact cannot be denied, “For example, last year Santa Familia’s leader reached out to the DOE to say that garbage is a problem in the community and that they don’t have a proper site. So, we worked along with the Solid Waste Management Authority and gave them access to the transfer stations and then we supported the collection system at the village level. So, what is the DOE doing to reduce plastics on the ground?  We are working to empower communities so that the effort on the ground has a greater benefit than going to the court. “

Mai accepts that a lot more has to be done to effectively manage plastic pollution and the wider issue of solid waste management in Belize, “In terms of the effectiveness and the efficiency of it, I think more boots need to be put on the ground. I think that the Public Health Department, the Belize Solid Waste Management Authority, and in some instances, the municipal government such as village, town and city councils need to come together to address this.”

And a part of the country’s solution is the “Environmental Protection Pollution from Plastics 2020” legislation. Single-use items such as plastic bags, plates, cups, straws and utensils will be prohibited by mid-2021. 

Since the legislation was signed in January of this year, the importation of prohibited products stopped in April. The ban would have come into effect by January 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic has now pushed back that date until July of 2021. The next step of the phase-out is the cease of manufacturing prohibited products, set for January 2021.  

Although the manufacturing of single-use plastics continues into next year, the Department of Environment wants to make sure that the prohibition of plastics and Styrofoam will not create a void.  For that reason, the development of standards of biodegradable materials is already underway. Aldo Cansino emphasizes the importance of this step in the fight against plastics: “That aspect is important because while we are phasing out, we also phase in. And the phase in is where we are looking at the alternatives. We have to make sure that these alternatives will not be as detrimental.”

And the sale of prohibited items will stop in April 2021, while three months later, July 2021, it will become illegal to have these banned items in your possession.

Mai reckons that this decision to ban may help Belize reduce the harmful plastics in the environment, “We hope that by reducing the number of single-use plastics; when we think about the volume that will be reduced that would end up in the regional sanitary landfill. So, whenever the government can reduce garbage from reaching the regional sanitary landfill, it is increasing the life span of that facility. So, it is critical for us to conduct another assessment, perhaps in three to five years of the passing of this legislation to see the effect of the legislation.”

[1] Daily plastic waste generation per person, measured in kilograms per person per day. This measures the overall per capita plastic waste generation rate prior to waste management, recycling or incineration. 

To stop plastic from entering our oceans, we must reduce the amount of single-use plastic being produced at the source. 

Companies need to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic they are putting into the supply chain and offer consumers plastic-free choices for their products. 

Without immediate changes to the way we use plastics, the amount of plastic debris annually entering the marine environment will roughly double from 2015 to 2025. 

Want to know what you can do to curb the single-use plastic problem? Visit our Plastics campaign page for more information.