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Choking on plastic - Improper disposal of plastic items hurting Jamaica

Published:Sunday | October 17, 2010 | 12:00 AM
This recent photo of garbage in the St William Grant Park shows plastic bottles and bags, which are a matter of serious concern for Water and Housing Minister Dr Horace Chang. - Photo by Christopher Serju

Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer

The country continues to face far-reaching environmental and economic fallout from the widescale improper disposal of plastic across the island. It is an issue that has left Water and Housing Minister Dr Horace Chang hopping mad.

"The introduction of plastics to the society has been horrible. The plastic things that we perpetuate is a horrible pain," exclaimed Chang as he addressed a recent Gleaner Editors' Forum.

"I find it a pain. In fact, if I could avoid using anything plastic, I'd really do so," Chang added.

"It cost the beach owners in Montego Bay - from Aquasol to the public beach, up to Doctor's Cave - billions of dollars to clean it up because of plastic bottles all over the place. That's what's killing us," said Chang.

Earlier, Transport Minister Mike Henry told the Editors' Forum that the Port Authority of Jamaica had spent more than $300,000 to clean up Kingston Harbour in the wake of the flood rains associated with Tropical Storm Nicole.

Local environmentalists have, for years, been involved in a battle to increase public awareness about the long-term impact of simple everyday actions such as the dumping of drink bottles, 'scandal' bags, and other forms of plastic.

Safeguarding human health

They have repeatedly warned that while the flexibility of plastic makes it attractive as a packaging material, its durability demands that the disposal be carried out in a manner consistent with safeguarding human health and the environment.

This is important because plastic never dies. It is not biodegradable, and so does not break down readily or melt away.

Sadly, the evidence shows that Jamaicans are among those guilty of polluting the environment, with as much as 80 per cent of the garbage in the sea getting there via rivers and gullies. A large per cent of this waste is plastic.

Some plastic containers carry food, beverages, oil, pesticides, and other hazardous material to the sea where marine life, in particular, fish and turtles, often die from ingesting 'soft' plastic such as bags, sacks, and cones.

From eating the fish which survive the ingestion of these plastics, humans are exposed to the toxic effects of these pollutants.

Birds which eat these fish and other marine life pass on the toxic effects to their young and the predators who prey on them - humans included.

Plastic waste increasing in Jamaica

The 2007 state of the environment report shows that in Jamaica, plastic waste is growing faster than any other, with the majority of this coming from packaging material such as bags, containers, and drums.

Most of this is composed of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), considered a safe plastic which is used to package soft drinks, water, juice, cosmetics, and household cleaners.

PET plastic is popular with manufacturers because of its strength, thermo-stability, and transparency. It is also inexpensive, lightweight, resealable, shatter-resistant, and recyclable.

Some plastics such as PET and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) made from petroleum are recycled, but the rate is very low and most end up in landfills. However, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), present in shower curtains, tiles, toys, piping and automobile interiors, can be difficult to recycle as it contains chemicals such as heavy metals that may leach into groundwater over time.

For Jamaica, total importation of plastic bags, sacks, and cones increased from 780,000 kilos in 1999 to more than 4.5 million kilos in 2006.