Antigua takes bold lead on plastic bags
As we traverse daily the length and breadth of Barbados, how much do we observe our surroundings? For example, the state of the drains running alongside the island’s roads and highways that serve as a conduit for the run-off of rainwater. Also, the many idle plots of land that dot the countryside and are overrun, in many instances, by wild tamarind trees, shrubbery, and bits and pieces of garbage.
It is hard for anyone who has been paying close attention not to have noticed the almost ubiquitous presence of plastic bags, even being blown through the air sometimes whenever there is a strong gust of wind. Not only are plastic bags an unsightly reminder of the growing problem of littering on the island, they also contribute, among other things, to disease, such as dengue fever, and flooding by blocking watercourses during heavy rainfall.
The serious challenges which plastic bags are posing to the environment are not confined to land. They are also polluting the sea around us, and represent a serious danger to marine life. Turtles, which are an endangered species, are known to choke on them. Fishermen have also reported finding plastic bags inside the stomachs of fish they have caught from time to time.
Every Caribbean country is grappling in some way with the environmental challenges posed by plastic bags and other containers made of the same material which, in some cases, is not biodegradable. Because of such concerns, Antigua and Barbuda recently decided to deal with the problem head-on. In an interesting development, the government of Prime Minister Gaston Browne announced a ban on the importation of plastic bags.
The ban will be instituted from the beginning of next year. The only exception will be plastic bags used for the collection and disposal of household and other garbage. In the meantime, authorities in the Ministry of Health are planning to engage the private sector, especially retailers who are heavy users of plastic bags, to come up with alternatives.
The Antiguan government says it will go as far as waiving duties and other taxes to assist businesses to make the transition. Some supermarkets are already proposing a switch to recyclable bags.
Antigua and Barbuda’s bold stand for environmental preservation is commendable and serves as an inspiration to other countries looking for a solution to the plastic bag problem. As small island states, Caribbean countries are heavily dependent in so many ways on maintaining a pristine environment. It is vital, for example, for the continued viability of tourism, our No.1 foreign exchange earner. Just as environmental degradation is a turn-off for visitors, it should also be for us ourselves.
The widespread use of plastic bags for packaging, especially in supermarkets and other retail outlets, is relatively recent in Barbados and dates from the 1980s or thereabouts. Up to then, paper bags were mostly used. It was also common back then for persons to transport groceries and other household items in card boxes which, like paper bags, are also environmentally friendly because they are biodegradable.
Ironically, the switch from paper to plastic was driven by environmental concerns about the negative effects of the destruction of trees to make paper. There were also simultaneous concerns about the adverse effect which tree felling, especially in the world’s rainforests, was having on climate change. Trees give off oxygen, which is necessary for human life, and absorb carbon dioxide which, because of increased emissions from industry, has become a major contributor to global warming.
Given the extent to which plastic bags and equally non-biodegradable Styrofoam containers are despoiling the island’s landscape, Barbados urgently needs to give consideration to introducing an enlightened public policy that discourages their use. Indeed, such a move would be supportive of the Government’s stated objective of sustainable development that focuses
on preservation of the natural environment for future generations. Indeed, the ultimate objective of such a policy should be having Barbados designated as a plastic bag-free country in another five to ten years.
Developed countries were among the first to recognize the growing pollution problem caused by plastic bags. For some time now, they have been encouraging a return to paper bags and more environmentally friendly containers. Because of the high level of public awareness of the issue, many developed country consumers have adopted the habit of taking reusable bags with them when going shopping.
Why can’t we also? Antigua and Barbuda has set an admirable example for the rest of the region. It has shown the way.