Pivot point for plastics in the Caribbean
By Analissa Rasheed, Consultant to the ACP-MEAs project
Plastics are made of chemicals consisting of the basic polymers and additives to meet a specific function. They are intrinsic to everyday life and our dependence is ever-increasing. Globally, annual production of plastics was approximately 460 million tonnes in 2019, generating 353 million tonnes of plastic waste and this is expected to triple by 2060. There are currently thousands of different plastic types and plastic waste is shown to be dominated by packaging (46%) followed by textiles (15%), consumer products (12%), transportation (6%), building and construction (4%), electrical (4%) and industrial machinery (0.4%).
The issue arises because plastics never really disappear, their long-lasting polymers units simply break down into smaller pieces, micro and nano plastics and are spread everywhere, across all ecosystems. It is well established that plastic pollution occurs at every stage of its lifecycle and can adversely impact human health, livelihoods, the economy, food systems and the environment.
Of the plastic waste generated globally, an estimated 60-90 million tonnes were mismanaged in 2015 and this is anticipated to increase 2.5-fold by 2040. A broadscale breakdown of the data reveals that the Caribbean is responsible for approximately 1.4% of the global mismanaged plastic waste. Mismanaged plastic waste is characterised as waste that is not managed in a controlled setting and can move into the natural environment. This includes dumpsites, unmanaged landfills, open burning and littering. In the Caribbean, this is the primary transportation pathway from sources into the terrestrial environment. While considerable attention has been given to plastics entering the marine environment, it is estimated that 1/3 of all plastic wastes ends up in soils or freshwater systems and microplastic contamination on land might be 4-23 fold larger than in the marine aquatic environment. Sea-based transportation pathways do also influence our region, originating from the North Atlantic Ocean and Central and South American rivers plumes. It is estimated that a plastic particle deposited along the northwest African coast takes 0.5-1 year to reach the Caribbean.
What are the solutions to this enormously complex issue of plastic pollution? There are a multitude of initiatives which require multi-sectoral and diverse interventions and transformation in policy areas such as trade, regulatory landscape, economic, health, labour, research and development and environment etc., not unlike what is observed for the climate change. In the Caribbean region, where most of the plastic pollution originates from the downstream stage of the plastic lifecycle, the primary solution requires necessary improvement in our waste management system, at all stages including collection, end of life management, landfilling and recycling to reduce plastic leakage into the environment.
However, it is commonly acknowledged that the world cannot ‘recycle’ its way out of the problem as global recycling rates are forecast to remain low over the coming decades from 9% in 2019 to 17% in 2060. Further, since SIDS have greater limitations on financial resources than other countries, the practicality of securing the required investment for these improvements will be difficult to obtain. This is where the Caribbean can benefit from the highly anticipated global treaty on plastics, expected in 2024. Though we are at the early stages of the treaty negotiation, it presents an opportunity for the region to obtain support in its transition towards a more circular global plastic economy, and building of institutional, political, and technical capacities at all stages of the plastics lifecycle.
At these negotiations, the Caribbean can influence the structure and content of the global treaty to ensure the region’s needs are heard and met.
It is essential to identify our priority sources of plastic pollution and its impacts to ensure emphasis and funding are appropriately directed towards addressing impactful mitigation and alleviation interventions.
To achieve this, at a minimum, we need more region-specific research into how plastic pollution is affecting our ecosystems, particularly keystones species, agricultural and commercially relevant food chains, our human health from exposures to chemicals from plastics and our economy. We must also investigate how mismanaged plastic waste is transported on land considering our topography, vegetation and land use, in order to identify sinks/hotspots of pollution.
Finally, the path towards ending plastic pollution demands determined and collaborative action from all stakeholder groups across the plastics lifecycle, governments, industry/business, investors, civil society and consumers.
UNEP 2023a. Turning off the Tap
UNEP 2023b. Chemicals in Plastics
UNEP 2023c. Plastic Science | UNEP/PP/INC.1/7
GIZ 2023. SIDS and Plastic Pollution