Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Time to ban Styrofoam containers

Published:Sunday | January 31, 2016 | 1:00 AM

Two Saturdays ago, I took part in a cleanup of the beach along the Palisadoes strip. There were about 50 of us and we collected 60 huge bags of garbage in just about two hours. We left the toilet and microwave oven that someone had deposited on the beach. What kind of person would do a thing like that?

I was really surprised at the amount of Styrofoam littering the beach. There were clean white plates that looked as if they had recently blown away before use. And then there was a whole heap of dirty Styrofoam that must have been left ages ago. A total mess.

Styrofoam is the brand name of a petroleum-based plastic that does not biodegrade. It breaks apart into bits and pieces that keep getting smaller and smaller until they turn to dust. But Styrofoam doesn't disappear. It lingers on and on for centuries! That's no exaggeration. You just can't get rid of it.

So-called 'disposable' Styrofoam food and drink containers are not actually disposable. They are disposable only because they are thrown away after a single use. What a waste! Just think how many Styrofoam containers we dash weh every single day in Jamaica. And where do they go? To the dump, taking up valuable space.

Masses of Styrofoam containers also get away into the sea. Fish eat the Styrofoam. And we end up eating the fish. We might as well gobble down the Styrofoam container along with the food. Because the Styrofoam is already in the food chain!

 

DUPPY WHISPERER

 

I keep thinking of the good old days of the 'shut pan'. Or 'shet' pan. The Dictionary of Jamaican English describes it this way: "A vessel of tin or other thin metal, cylindrical, with a cover having a flange that usually fits inside the upper edge and makes a tight closure; the cover frequently has a small fixed handle. The shut pan is chiefly used to carry food."

Note chiefly! The Dictionary states that the shut pan was also used to catch duppies. Seriously! Talking of which, mi nearly dead wid laugh the night I went to see Patrick Brown's 'Duppy Whisperer' at Centerstage. It was a benefit performance for my friend Scarlette Beharie, a vibrant theatre practitioner fighting Stage Four cancer. Scarlette made a brief appearance and told us to enjoy the show despite the serious cause. And we certainly did.

Before the play started, I got into a little situation with the mother of young woman whose hairstyle was blocking my view of the stage. She had natural hair, swept up and out into a huge ball. It was like an Afro on steroids. I gently told her that her inconsiderate hairstyle really wasn't appropriate for the theatre, especially our makeshift venues that are not purpose-built.

The rows are all on the same level instead of being graded. And the seats are not staggered. You look directly into the 'head back' of the person in front of you, rather than to the side. The mother was unimpressed by my frankness and told me I was against her daughter's hair because it was natural! I was lucky to be able to switch seats.

 

CONSTANT WASTE

 

The shut pan for food, not duppies, was an excellent idea. It was certainly not disposable. There was no constant waste of containers. The pans had compartments stacked on top of each other that allowed food items to be kept separate. I'm not sure how these shut pans came to Jamaica. It may have been via India where they are known as tiffin boxes.

The old-time shut pan is no longer in fashion. But there are new models all over on websites like Amazon. Instead of buying cooked meals served in Styrofoam, why can't we carry our own reusable food containers to takeaway restaurants?

Another option is to replace Styrofoam with biodegradable containers made from materials like sugar cane, wheat and corn. These are much more expensive than the cheap plastic products. But the cheapest almost always turns out to be the dearest.

There was a local company that used to manufacture truly disposable containers, facilitated by a government subsidy on imported materials. But the subsidy was cut and the cost of making the ecofriendly products was just too high. And that was the end of that.

 

NUH DUTTY UP JAMAICA

 

The Palisadoes cleanup was organised by the Japan International Corporate Agency (JICA), in partnership with the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) and the 'Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica' campaign. Cleverly billed as 'Garbie Walkie', the cleanup combined exercise and public service. We had a lot of fun.

As I was leaving the beach, I heard a woman say, "I don't want to use Styrofoam ever again!" She admitted that she couldn't say she absolutely wouldn't. Sometimes you just don't have a choice. Supermarkets pack fruits and vegetables in Styrofoam containers. But if enough of us decide we're not going to buy products packed in Styrofoam, things will change. Consumers do have power.

And as for the campaign to stop duttying up Jamaica! It's an uphill battle to persuade some people that garbage is everybody's business. They think that when they fling rubbish out of a bus or car, it's no longer their problem. They are so short-sighted. That's how you end up with a toilet on the beach. Pure crap!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.