Martin Henry | Plastics ban: Vaz and vendors
"No delay! No backing down!" The voice of Vaz, minister in charge of the environment. And very much, too, the voice of vendors. The ban on single-use plastic products rode in with the New Year, but as the minister clearly understands, it's going to be a while before these unwanted plastic products, bags, and straws and food boxes, etc, disappear from the scene.
From Kingston to Hanover, the news sleuths are reporting, the ubiquitous black scandal bag is still very much at large.
Mr Vaz is bagged and boxed - without portfolio - in that strange Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. The plastics ban is much more than environment. It is very much an economic issue. Listen to this fruit vendor downtown: "I sell fruit - things like melon - and not everybody a guh buy a whole melon, so mi have to cut it and put it inna [clear] plastic bags. Mi caan sell melon an' pawpaw an' pine inna paapa bag or cloth bag. It nuh mek nuh sense. Even if dem [customers] come wid dem own bag, some fruits when cut jus' caan sell so. Wi caan stop dem [the Government] from ban it, but at the same time, wey dem a guh bring in a wey wi a talk 'bout."
Alternative packaging is just not available and would not become available without the economic driver of the absence of plastic.
The plastics revolution has delivered very cheap packaging in massive quantities, driving down the price of goods, not to mention providing the wide array of cheap plastic goods themselves, which disproportionately benefit the poorest. But plastics have also created a massive global environmental problem, polluting everything from the human body itself to the oceans in which plastic garbage patches bigger than some large countries now congregate.
And we on this island are getting covered with plastic waste. Someone told me just last week that you cannot see the surface of the Ferry River off the Mandela Highway, which is now under progress and prosperity expansion, because of the solid mass of plastic waste on the river. And a gully near me is corked with plastic throwaways.
So I'm asking, with the ban on some single-use plastic products, what's the plan for dealing with the scourge of the PET bottles? They are single-use plastics, too. We are using and disposing nearly one billion of them annually. That is 350 plastic bottles for every member of the population!
Recycling is part of the answer. But sorting, collecting, processing, and converting to alternative products are part of the problem. Very much an economic problem as well. And so far, Government has been slow in coming forward with any kind of viable plan.
Jameikan ginnalship is already finding its way around the plastics ban. Some established, formal fixed-location businesses have already stopped issuing the free scandal bags, which used to be given with purchases before the January 1 ban. But they are directing their customers to the walking sellers of scandal bags on the street outside of their establishment. A new small business. And one impossible to police on a large scale.
So what about reusing 'single-use' plastic items like scandal bags and being able to demonstrate it? What does the law say about that? The scandal bag, for a generation has had a very important reuse function, which The Gleaner editorialised on December 30 last year: 'Bagging garbage'. The bags are also widely used as doodoo bags in many deprived communities without adequate toilets. But then the loaded bags are just tossed into the nearest gully or open lot.
The plastics ban is heading into a truly massive collision with solid-waste disposal. Is not just nasty people nasty why so much plastic and other solid waste plaster the country. In fact, a bold effort is being made by many citizens to scandal bag their garbage if it will be collected by the National Solid Waste Management Authority.
Around a third of the Jamaican population lives in informal settlements, which, by definition, have very limited and sometimes zero access to normal supplies of social services. But it's not only squatter settlements that the disastrous NSWMA cannot service. Garbage collection is an all-over national problem.
And the NSWMA is about to worsen the garbage-disposal problem in its threat to ticket householders who continue to use scandal bags in disposing of their garbage instead of the recommended (and largely unavailable and more costly) boxes and drums. This can only drive garbage disposal more towards that garbage-friendly neighbourhood gully or open lot or to that backyard fire heap.
But then again, the NSWMA should hop off its muck-oozing garbage truck and have two quick words with the police. A word about those tens of thousands of unpaid traffic tickets. And a word about being unable to ticket anyone for decriminalised ganja possession from among tens of thousands of readily available candidates because the ticket books never became available.
In any case, any householder with two senses working and not counting the many thousands without a known name and a fixed address can easily separate themselves from their scandal-bagged garbage if they bother to bag under threat.
And waste disposal, I tremble, may be heading for a collision with public health. Jamaica, in the couple of decades before Independence, and the one after, tamed a range of infectious diseases. Government is now emphasising managing the non-communicable diseases (NCDs). But fresh outbreaks of forgotten infectious diseases, including those that spring out of a filthy environment, are a live risk.
The minister is pinning a great deal of hope on 'environmentally friendly' biodegradable and multiuse alternatives to single-use plastics. All materials have their own environmental impact in source, production, use, and disposal.
We will continue to import virtually all our packaging of whatever kind, so it's the disposal that is our big headache. But readers may recall, better than the late Dwight Nelson could at the Commission of Enquiry on the Tivoli Incursion, the outcry over the impact on forests of the use of tree products. Not so long ago, the fashion at checkout counters was to ask the shopper, "Paper or plastic?" offering the consumer the choice of ruining the forests or polluting the environment with non-biodegradable plastics.
A lot of the stuff is going to get to the dump, no matter what type it is. And it is dumps we have, not proper landfills. We are just weak on recycling. Ultimately we, humanity, can't win unless we simply consume less of everything.
Some people, including the Opposition and this newspaper, have been calling for more public education and even a delay on the ban until the educating is done. "There is no time that will be the right time for everyone", the minister has responded. And any date which is selected for the start of the ban will meet with calls for a delay.
Those of us who watch public education campaigns for this and for that as part of our business very well know that Vaz is right on this one. Jamaicans treat public-education campaigns like how we used to treat hurricane warnings. 'Dem not serious. The laas one neva come. It a guh change course. We can talk it (pray it) away.' Until the big storms became regular. When thrown in, we quickly learn to swim.
The monumental ignorance manifested in the zany vox pop comments about the ban is as much a failure to learn as it is a failure to teach.
The key to the enforcement of the ban, as the Plastic Minister seems to have firmly grasped, is not the early prosecution (persecution) of thousands of street-level retail operatives, which, in any case, can't be effectively done. The key is to dry up supplies by blocking imports of both finished products and raw materials by a handful of large operatives. But I hear there's already a plan to scale up bag size just a bit above the 24 inches barred by the ban!
As I have tired to demonstrate in today's column, there's a lot more to be done both to detrash our island environment and also to create an orderly and ordered society in which bans can be effectively policed.