Tue | Oct 16, 2018

Editorial | The sense of premature questions

Published:Wednesday | September 19, 2018 | 12:00 AM

It is most surprising that the Government has announced a ban on some plastic packaging, most of which is to come into force in three and a half months’ time, without knowing what sanctions will apply to people who breach the law. At least, that is the conclusion to be drawn from the explanations of senior technocrats of the government ministry overseeing the project.

It is to be recalled that the proposed ban has been on the table for two years, since government senator Matthew Samuda succeeded in having the Upper House approve his private member’s motion on the matter. Indeed, at the time, the Government side rejected an Opposition call for a delay of the vote, to ensure bipartisan agreement on the issues, fearing that it would slow down the process.

That is a significant part of the backdrop against which Daryl Vaz, minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, on Monday unveiled the administration’s decision to, from next January, bar the use of single-use plastic bags, as well as plastic drinking cups and straws. The importation of styrofoam food containers will also come into force from January, while the domestic manufacture of such products will kick in a year later. There is also to be a deposit refund scheme for PET bottles.

Yet UnaMay Gordon, the head of the Climate Change Division in Mr Vaz’s ministry, insisted that it was “premature” to ask questions about penalties against anyone who did not observe the rules.

“You can’t talk about penalty and sanction yet, and you don’t have legislation yet,” she lectured on Monday. “We (are) just into drafting now. You can’t answer that question now, because that question is premature.”

You dare say!

A few facts are to be borne in mind, apart from the time that has elapsed since the passage of Mr Samuda’s motion in the Senate and the announcement that a task force would be appointed to plan the implementation. One is the reason for the ban. Based on data from the think tank, Caribbean Policy Research Institute, Jamaica imports around 1.4 billion plastic bags annually, or sufficient for at least 500 per citizen. Further, there is little recycling, hence much of these mostly non-biodegradable materials end up in a landfill or are discarded in drains, streams and gullies, contributing to floods and other environmental hazards.

CRISIS OF PLASTIC

In other words, like many countries, Jamaica’s is being overwhelmed by a crisis of plastic and other petrochemical-based packages. Indeed, with the proposed ban, Jamaica will join more than 40 countries and municipalities worldwide in outlawing plastics used in this fashion. Moreover, several countries, most notably China this year, have banned the importation of plastic waste for recycling.

In that context, we would have expected that by the time the Government came to announce its plans for plastic, it would have had all bases covered, having had exhaustive dialogue with all stakeholders, including manufacturers of such products and the people who consume them. The point is that while what is intended is for the greater good, there will be disruptions in the short to medium term. It may even impact commerce, including a sectoral shift of jobs.

In the circumstance, certitude is important, especially a sense that the Government knows what it is about, even if, later on, it has to make adjustments. Ms Gordon’s statement suggests uncertainty and a lack of rigour in preparation, when the next move should be a major public-education campaign to inform consumers of the plans and the trade-offs associated with them.