Sat | Oct 24, 2020

Editorial | Don’t allow Styrofoam ban to falter

Published:Thursday | September 24, 2020 | 12:06 AM

IF MATTHEW Samuda is believed – and there is no reason not to – the Government could lose the plot on its ban on polystyrene food packaging, unless it acts with dispatch to cauterise the danger.

Mr Samuda, of course, does not put it that way. The message, nonetheless, is clear, and that raises questions about the vigilance of the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) and its sister agency, the National Compliance and Regulatory Authority (NCRA), in ensuring that product standards are established and adhered to.

Polystyrene packaging, more commonly known by the trademarked name, Styrofoam, is widely used globally in the fast-food and supermarket trade, as well as for other forms of consumer packaging. Like plastics and other non-biodegradable, petrochemical-based packing and utility products, it is a scourge to the environment. Polystyrene overwhelms landfills, finds its way into the food chain, into rivers and streams, as well as into the oceans, where it poses dangers to marine life.

The crisis of plastics and related products was also evident in Jamaica. Indeed, nearly two years ago the Government banned the importation, sale or use of single-use plastics bags, of which Jamaicans, on average, were estimated to use around 500 a year. That translates, for the country as a whole, to nearly 1.4 billion plastic bags annually.

In January of this year, the Government followed up the ban on plastic bags with the one on polystyrene packaging. At the time, environmentalists warned against attempted end-runs around the restrictions, with efforts to substitute polystyrene with non-degradable but recyclable plastics. “Anything that is non-biodegradable is not really an alternative, because what we are trying [to do] is to eliminate the single-use plastic from the solid waste stream,” said Suzanne Stanley, CEO of Jamaica Environment Trust, at the time.

Such fears, it seems, may be materialising. This week, Mr Samuda, who is now a Cabinet minister, but who, as a Government senator in 2018, championed the ban on plastics, complained that some people may be cheating. Some of what is passed as biodegradable may not be so. “Some things claiming to be biodegradable give concern because I don’t believe they are,” he said.

This does not require speculation by Mr Samuda. There are objective, scientific ways to determine these matters. Further, there are laws governing how products qualify to be what they say they are, how those standards are established, and how they are policed. The bodies tasked with these responsibilities are the BSJ and the NCRA.

With regard to biodegradability, the BSJ should have standards for this. And if a non-biodegradable product is being passed off as such, the NCRA should be bringing the recalcitrants to book. In circumstances such as these, given the still-relatively new regimes governing single-use plastic bags and polystyrene packaging, the agencies would be expected to be proactive in determining whether the rules are being followed.

Public awareness push

At the same time, the Government should step up its public awareness and education campaigns reminding consumers about the ban on polystyrene food packages and how to identify biodegradable food packaging. This will possibly have greater significance at this time in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurant patrons, in this environment, are more likely to use takeaway service, rather than in-house dining. This, going forward, could swell the volume of containers used in the trade, even adjusted for lower economic activity.

We will, no doubt, be reminded that recyclable packaging is also allowed. But that was partly on the assumption of recycling systems being in place to facilitate this process. Despite much talk over many years, the Government’s solid waste company is yet to develop a credible garbage separation programme, and a public-private sector recycling scheme has failed to gather real momentum. Only a small fraction of the millions of polyethylene terephthalate bottles used in Jamaica are recycled.

Government has also failed to develop a credit scheme for recyclable waste. That proposal has been on the table for more than two decades, which might have given the plan energy.

Pearnel Charles Jr, the new minister for the environment, under whom these matters now reside, should perhaps nudge the BSJ and the NCRA on their responsibilities, as well as make recycling programme, inclusive of a credit scheme, among the priorities on his agenda.