Editorial | Inadequate campaign about plastics and garbage
The economics of the partial ban on single-use plastic bags and styrofoam containers, which comes into force in a few days' time, is important, but not necessarily in the way that Matthew Samuda, the government senator, has focused on it. At least, not immediately.
He argues that the cost of biodegradable alternatives to plastics/styrofoam, especially food containers, won't be much more expensive. Further, given the likely rise in demand for these products, increased competition that will drive down costs, and the fact that packaging tends to be the small component in the price of food, the ban won't have a significant inflationary impact.
Senator Samuda is probably right. Time, and deeper analysis, will tell.
Our concern, though, is the potentially perverse effect of the ban, at least in the short term, as has been highlighted by Suzanne Stanley, the executive director of NGO, Jamaica Environment Trust. That's, in part, because of the inadequacy of the Government's education/sensitisation campaign, leading up to the ban.
To be clear, this newspaper broadly supports the ban on plastics. Jamaica is drowning in the stuff. Of the around 700,000 tonnes of solid collected annually by the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA), perhaps 20 per cent is plastics. A portion is collected for recycling. But vast amounts find their way into drains, rivers, gullies, on the sides of roads, on to open lots and into the sea - with significant damage to the environment.
Perhaps the most pervasive of these products is the single-use plastic bags of which, according to the think tank Caribbean Policy Research Institute, the island annually imports sufficient to supply each resident with around 500 - or a total of approximately 1.5 billion bags. Styrofoam food containers which, like 12"x12" plastic bags, will be subject to the ban from January 1, and PET bottles, which are not, are also ubiquitous.
BAD JOB AT PREPARING FOR CHANGE
Unfortunately, the Government hasn't done a good job in preparing Jamaicans for what should be a positive change. It was nearly two years after Mr Samuda won Senate approval for his motion proposing the ban that the Government last September announced its planned implementation in January - less than three months after the announcement. It was only in November, after this newspaper raised questions about the plan, that the government rolled out its education campaign.
Beyond the concerns of industry, and the short time frame they believe they have to adjust, the campaign has been less than fulsome, intense or sufficiently informative for consumers. Take the matter of how households prepare their garbage for disposal, which was raised recently by Ms Stanley. The NSWMA's advice is: "Bag it, bin it and we'll collect it".
Before the ubiquity of the plastic bags in which they received their goods at stores and supermarkets, most Jamaicans didn't bag their garbage. Most couldn't afford, or bothered to buy, garbage disposal bags. They placed their garbage directly into bins, which they put out for emptying by the NSWMA's disposal units. The upshot was that bins, especially with the unpredictability of the NSWMA's collection cycle, often overflowed into surrounding areas. Sometimes they were scavenged by humans and animals, with similar effect. Strewn garbage not only looked bad, but posed health and environmental hazards.
The 'positive' upside of the 'free' plastic bags consumers received with their groceries was their reuse in containerising garbage. In the absence of these 'free' bags, questions now are whether most Jamaicans can afford, or will now purchase garbage-disposal bags, and how they will prepare their waste for removal by the NSWMA. There has been, as Ms Stanley says, no robust advice on this matter in the Government's education campaign. And this is a public-health, environmental and economic issue.