The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – Paper, Plastic, or Polystyrene? -The New Prohibition
“Banning single-use plastic bags and straws without significant further action is putting a finger on a spigot at a time when we need to suppress the tidal wave” –Manny Stanislaus in World Resources Institute paper, August 16 2018
According to an item dated January 22 2019 on the Barbados Government Information Service website, from Monday, April 1, the importation, retail, sale and use of petro-based single-use plastic (plastic made from petroleum) will no longer be allowed in Barbados. The report further informs that products such as single-use plastic cups; cutlery, including plastic knives, forks and spoons; stirrers; straws; plates; egg trays (both plastic and Styrofoam), and Styrofoam containers used in the culinary retail industry will also be banned from that date.
It must have been a momentous announcement too, since it took no fewer than two Cabinet Ministers to publicize the proposal, he of Maritime Affairs and the Blue Economy, Mr Kirk Humprey, [no doubt because of the anecdote that plastic bags pose a threat to marine life that ingest them under the impression that they are jellyfish], and, more naturally, he of the Environment and National Beautification, Mr Trevor Prescod. It might be argued that so far as thematic relevance is concerned, there should have been a place there for the Minister of Commerce, on the basis that the measure is likely to impact significantly on the cost of items and that of doing business; and, for that very reason, the Minister of Finance.
Even so, the ban is not, as might have been assumed, immediately comprehensive. Mr. Humphrey explained that with effect from January 1, 2020, there will be a ban on the use of all petro-based plastic bags, with the exemption of those used for the packaging of pharmaceuticals/medicines, hygiene and the preservation of food. In addition, a moratorium has been extended on the use of tetra pack straws; while poultry producers have been given more time to find alternatives to the Styrofoam trays used to package chickens.
To my recollection, this is the second attempt to institute such a prohibition on plastics. There was one proposed last year by some members of the supermarket industry and a local environmental grouping. Of course, that initiative was doomed to failure in the absence of legislative support, the basis of some of the complaints made to the Fair Trading Commission, querying the bona fides of the proposal.
One supposes that on this occasion the prohibition will be duly supported by cognate legislation that would endow it with the necessary moral force in a state that adheres to the rule of law. Nonetheless, what appears to be missing on this occasion also is the official persuasion for people to buy into a state of affairs that will change substantially the way things are ordinarily done.
To his credit, Mr Humphrey did attempt to do so in the report although he chose to reference the alignment of our ecological self-expression with our moral imperative to be rid of single use plastics rather than the economics or the science of the initiative.
By his argument, “Barbados has to be a value-driven country. We have large expectations for ourselves. We have said that we want to be fossil-fuel-free by 2030; we want to have a renewable platform; we want to be a country that when we speak to the world we speak as an environmentally friendly country and destination.
[Therefore] these are the things that we must do if our words and our actions are to be aligned. And so, we have made ourselves clear as to where we stand on single-use plastic”.
A review of the literature will, however, betray a far more complex calculus concerning the banning of single use plastics than how we might be regarded by the rest of the world.
Doubtless, there is much to be said for a ban on single use plastics. Their pollution factor and the costs of their production and disposal as well as their provision of a vector for mosquitoes and their diseases all point to their good riddance. Yet, on closer examination, pollution is rather a matter of disposal and re-use than the nature of plastic itself.
For instance, at home, we use the plastic bags from the supermarket as bin-liners for the various rooms in the house and for the disposal of old newspapers. The description of “single-use” is patently not apt there. As one writer posits, the solution to choking and clogging drains would be to educate people on better disposal. When the plastics are replaced, something else will clog and choke the drains once it is not properly disposed of.
Anent the threat to wildlife, Craig Good, who describes himself as a skeptic, asserts the following “There are at least anecdotes aplenty indicating that turtles and whales are ingesting bags, which might be mistaken for jellyfish in the water. It’s reasonable to assume that the plastic accumulating in their gut is bad for them, but we have no idea how prevalent this is or how many might be surviving it fairly well, because nobody posts photos when there’s nothing unusual in a dead animal’s gut. But it does seem clear that plastics, one way or another, are entering the food chain. Given that there’s no nutritional value to plastics this is probably a bad thing. But how much of the problem is plastic bags versus all the other garbage humans dump into the sea? Good question.”
So far as the contrasting carbon footprint is concerned, research from the University of Oregon affirms that stresses on the environment from the production of plastics are fewer compared to paper bags and cotton carrier bags since plastics use fewer chemicals, less water and also emit a significantly lower amount of greenhouse gas.
Further, while materials used in the manufacture of plastics are synthetic, those for the immediate alternatives are made from natural materials. If paper is to be the replacement, then more trees will have to be destroyed, an aspect of environmental degradation.
Moreover, the relative imperviousness of plastic makes it a more effective packaging for liquids or wet products than re-usable bags, and, as an incident, also more hygienic, since they are easier to clean. Who knows what nasties might lurk in an improperly cleaned reusable bag?
The purpose of this column is not to challenge the official policy of prohibiting the use of plastics, but merely to caution that the native intelligence of the local populace merits at least a cogent case being put for the implementation of any policy measure. Of course, this desideratum will make governance a infinitely more difficult undertaking, but as one source puts it, this is [merely] a reminder that the best and most honest answer to some questions is, “I don’t know, let’s find out.”