64,800,000 – this is the number of single-use plastic bags Aruba has prevented from entering the environment and oceans since January 1, 2017. And counting.

Although Canadian-born, I grew up in Aruba where the ocean is never more than a short drive away. I consider myself quite lucky to have grown up on a Caribbean island that, in the time of my teens, had a population of only ~65K inhabitants and two TV channels from Venezuela. So if you’re Spanish wasn’t anything to brag about, like me, you would spend your time outdoors and likely close to, or in, the ocean. This is how my love for the Caribbean blue ocean was born. Or as I like to call it, Blue Love.

The first memory I have is of my granddad (whom just passed a few weeks ago just shy of 100 years of age) teaching us how to swim in our turquoise blue waters at Eagle beach. His idea of teaching us meant throwing us in, and if you wanted to breathe, you needed to learn how to kick fast. I’m a Pisces, so I always like to think that I was, and still am, a natural in the water. After that, water activities included water-skiing, boating, fishing, windsurfing, bodyboarding, beaching, and any activity that brought me close to my blue love. And the ones I loved most: snorkeling, free-diving and scuba diving.

In December 2013, I was watching a local news segment covering an ongoing cleanup of the reefs in an area that I had spent a lot of time water-skiing and snorkeling when growing up. The area, rich in mangroves, was inundated with single-use plastic bags all along both sides of the channel for one kilometer downwind, stemming from the landfill. This moment changed my life and my career.

I was no policy maker nor lawyer, but someone needed to do something… I figured that person may as well be me! I may not have had all the skills, but I did feel I had the skills to figure it out along the way. So I did! In a team of three, our voluntary proposal was formally treated in Parliament of Aruba and was unanimously approved on June 28, 2016. The law took effect on January 1, 2017.

I continued volunteering my time to ensure the implementation of the plastic bag ban was successful in terms of the sustained adoption. That same year, I started a new study at the University of Aruba. I took a sabbatical from work to concentrate on my studies. When it came time for my thesis, I naturally gravitated to the plastic bag ban topic. I knew we had created a positive impact, but there was no data to support this. The UN at the time was also calling for evaluations – not only do the regulatory models vary extensively per country, state or province, but not all models implemented have been successful. So I decided to conduct a scientific evaluation study and base my thesis on topic.

I came up with the idea of getting sponsors to support my research. In order to manage the funds in a responsible and transparent manner, a non-profit foundation together with the sponsoring partners made sense. Within two weeks I had a name, an idea for a logo, a presentation pitch outlining my goals and research, and I was sitting making my request to His Excellency the Governor of Aruba to endorse my study… And so, with three visionary companies from the private sector whom I approached to invest in the foundation and form the board of directors (Total Finance Aruba, Aruba Bank and ASD Aruba), Impact Blue Foundation was officially launched on World Oceans Day, June 8, 2018, as was my new career!

So, in Aruba, where we estimated the usage to be 30 million single-use plastic bags annually before the law took effect in 2017, what has our #impactblue been so far? Here are a few key highlights of my thesis titled Beyond a Plastic Economy:

  • 72% adoption rate of Aruba’s plastic bag ban among retail with another 19% in transition at the time of data collection at the end of 2018, so adoption is likely higher by now;
  • Based on this adoption rate, we estimate that we have prevented almost 65 million single-use plastic bags from entering our environment and ocean;
  • 63% of retail respondents introduced other eco-friendly products into their operations as a result of the plastic bag ban (ie. paper straws, reusable napkins, etc.);
  • Although retail respondents experienced impacts to their business performance, their cultural values or pro-environmental behaviours also influenced their decision to adopt whereby 89% felt that the plastic bag ban was good for Aruba.
  • Our model also prohibited bioplastics and oxo-degradable single-use plastics. As such, one-fifth of retail respondents switched to providing reusable bag options, and another two-thirds to recycled and non-recycled paper options.

Other initiatives that we have been a part of:

  • The Sint Maarten plastic bag ban is based on our model and we have been supporting their process. Their initiative will soon be treated in Parliament and is expected to be approved in early 2020. Once implemented, this will be another potential 15 million single-use bags prevented, annually!
  • The Government of Aruba continued with the movement we created and have expanded the law to include a ban on single-use plastics, Styrofoam and sunblock containing oxybenzone, for whom Impact Blue has been conducting an independent value-chain analysis to maximise adoption by identifying and removing bottlenecks.
  • And finally, partaking as a crew member on Leg 4 of eXXpedition Round-the-World 2019-2020 to learn the science in order to launch a two-year citizen science program, namely iB-LAB, on Aruba to further understand Aruba’s total plastic footprint and behaviour over time toward Aruba’s next plastic reducing solutions. It’s ambitious, I know… but we’ll figure it out along the way!

We’re also designing some other hacks with defined impacts, but I’ll leave that for another time! 😊

Photo credits: Jamie Colman & eXXpedition

For now, let’s get back to my eXXpedition adventure…

I think all of us on board, at some point, experienced “a moment” during the sailing trip that has the potential to define or redefine us, charge us, and create a spark or maybe lasting memory. For me, this moment was on our first night (November 30th – December 1st) at sea leaving Antigua…

We were on the 12am-4am night-watch. Rachel was by my bedside at 11.40pm and whispered gently, “It’s time for your watch and the sky is full of falling stars”. For months and months, I had been fantasizing in great anticipation of the diamond night skies that can only be experienced at sea and away from any light pollution. Those first four hours on watch were the most intense source of pure inspiration and child-like wonder of my entire life…

The ocean was like a mirror: calm and nurturing, loving and full of mystery. We couldn’t see blue love past the dim lights on the mast – we could only feel her swaying, ever-so gently. Everything else was the diamond night sky, everywhere. And it was like looking at it through a fish-eye lens, seeing and maybe even sensing the roundness of the earth. It all felt so close… I think most of the girls experienced that night as if we were very small in a big world surrounded by an unending dark ocean. For me, it was the opposite.

In that moment, I was living in a world that was small, and I thought… all of what we were trying to do, the very reason why we were all on this sailing boat in the middle of the Caribbean blue, was completely realistic and attainable because the world is much smaller than we had previously envisioned. I’m a visual brain: if I can imagine it and see it, I can do it. And so, I felt empowered to my core to continue creating impacts for blue love.

And I’m happy to say, our crew has continued our contact with each other and our quest to #makingourimpactblue is on!

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