Fri | Feb 28, 2020

‘Swapping black dog for monkey’ - Environmentalists, manufacturer decry new wave of plastic as sun sets on styrofoam

Published:Wednesday | January 1, 2020 | 12:18 AMChristopher Serju/Gleaner Writer
Styrofoam containers lie on sea purslane along the coastline in the vicinity of Port Royal Street. The Kingston waterfront has been bedevilled by garbage pollution for many years.
Andrew Mahfood (left), CEO of Wisynco, and William Mahfood, chairman, at the company’s annual general meeting at the AC Marriott Hotel in St Andrew recently. Wisynco has pulled out of the production of Styrofoam, representing $1 billion in revenue, ahead of today’s ban on the material.
B&E Caterers has been using alternative food containers to styrofoam ones for at three to four months. Even though its alternative costs an estimated 10 per cent more, the Washington Boulevard restaurant has not passed on the additional cost to its customers, an official said.
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Two environmentalists have declared that the unfolding mass replacement of styrofoam food and beverage containers with non-biodegradable plastic alternatives is a retrogade step that could undermine the gains envisioned by groundbreaking legislation geared towards tackling Jamaica’s garbage crisis.

Peter Espeut said that he was familiar with alternatives to styrofoam in Antigua and elsewhere, which he expects would end up in garbage dumps just like with styrofoam.

“The big difference is that they are biodegradable, so it’s not that they are reusable or recyclable. The substitutes that are biodegradable are the ones that environmentalists are recommending, not the ones that are non-biodegradable, or you are swapping black dog for monkey,” he told The Gleaner yesterday afternoon.

Chief executive officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust, Suzanne Stanley, also cautioned against compounding the pollution problem.

“Anything that is non-biodegradable is not really an alternative because what we are trying to do is eliminate the single-use plastic from the solid waste stream,” she said.

Meanwhile, Espeut hinted that despite the abundance of plastic in Jamaica’s garbage profile, it would never be enough to provide the consistent throughput to make investment in a recycling plant economically feasible.

“Before I clap and applaud these recyclable non-biodegradable alternatives to styrofoam, I have to hear who is going to build the recycling plant,” he said.

The national ban on the production of Styrofoam came into effect today, approximately one year after importation of lunch containers, plates and cups from the material had been outlawed.

The legislation, which had first triggered the withdrawal of plastic straws and single-use plastic bags, popularly called ‘scandals’, last year, was piloted by Senator Matthew Samuda in 2016.

However, polystyrene for the packaging of food items such as raw meats will be exempt.

ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS

But chief executive officer of the Wisynco Group, Andrew Mahfood, believes that the policy move could backfire, causing much more plastic to be channelled into gullies and, eventually, the already-polluted Kingston Harbour.

Wisynco, once the country’s largest manufacturer of styrofoam food packaging, last month discontinued production and cut 100 jobs in the process because its principals deemed alternatives too costly to compete with import options.

Mahfood told The Gleaner that, consistent with the ban, his company has been searching for alternatives for its own canteen but had arrived at disconcerting conclusions.

“They are made from recyclable material, they are 100 per cent plastic, non-biodegradable, but they are not polystyrene. They are of a compound called polypropylene,” he said of the alternatives.

Polypropylene is a compound thermoplastic used in a variety of applications, such as packaging for consumer products, and plastic parts for various sectors, including the automotive industry.

But government officials like Daryl Vaz, minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, have bristled at calls by business interests for a delay in the implementation of the ban. He is confident that Jamaicans will fall in line and comply fully with the law.

“I still believe that it will take a little time for the full complement of alternative [products] to be in the marketplace, but I believe that the preparations have been made by the industry. So I’m expecting a smoother transition,” he told The Gleaner last Friday.

“From all indications, there are alternatives, and in terms of pricing, I believe that in the very short term, based on competition and everything else, we will see prices coming down and not making much of an impact in relation to the final selling prices of the boxed lunches and the other usages of the styrofoam boxes.”

Mahfood, however, believes that the Government’s decision was ill-advised and premature because sufficient, economically viable and environmentally friendly alternatives to polypropylene products were not readily accessible.

“They are 100 per cent recycled, so you don’t even know what you are eating out of, who eats out of it before, or what it was before. You don’t even know the answer to those questions. And because it’s polypropylene and not polystyrene, it is going to be allowed to be imported into the country,” Mahfood explained. “So we will end up with a new source of plastics polluting our gullies.”

He said further that the compound cost per unit is likely to have a telling impact on the economies of scale on canteens and cook shops. Styrofoam retails for between $7 and $10, depending on size, said Mahfood, while imported alternatives are priced, on average, at $25 each.

Mahfood said that the answer to Jamaica’s garbage dilemma lies elsewhere – in organised disposal and tough laws against littering – something that the Wisynco boss says he has been preaching for a long time.

“You need to educate our country that one does not dispose of items in gullies. When we are eating on the road, we just don’t throw the boxes down on the sidewalk or in the gully. Then it gets driven over, blown around or destroyed, and eventually ends up in the sea,” the CEO said.

“There is other garbage apart from styrofoam boxes that ends up in the harbour along with every other single thing else that ends up in the gullies.”

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com