The Caribbean is renowned globally for its stunning beaches and crystal clear ocean. However, its islands and the surrounding sea are being contaminated by plastics, posing a potential future threat to its diverse marine life and the tourism industry on which its economy depends. In the first scientific paper to come out of eXXpedition Round the World ‘Source, sea and sink—A holistic approach to understanding plastic pollution in the Southern Caribbean’, we quantified plastics within the Caribbean marine environment and examined their potential sources by holistically integrating marine and terrestrial sampling and computer modelling.
In a virtual event, we discussed some of our key findings with study authors Winnie Courtene-Jones (eXXpedition Science Lead and University of Plymouth, UK), Taylor Maddalene (University of Georgia), Molly James (Plymouth Marine Laboratory), Kathryn Youngblood (University of Georgia), Sally Earthrowl (eXXpedition Mission Leader), Emily Penn (eXXpedition Mission Director) and Richard Thompson (University of Plymouth). Watch the full discussion below, or carry on scrolling to read the highlights!
Plastic Pollution – The Big Picture
Professor Richard Thompson, Director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth, is a world-leading marine scientist and is at the forefront of pioneering research into the causes and effects of marine litter. At the start of the Caribbean research discussion, he noted that there is a general agreement among the public, policy and industry that we have a major plastic pollution problem globally – a consensus which didn’t exist 10 years ago. In order to address the problem effectively, it is really important that we understand not only what types of plastic are in our ocean, but also where it’s coming from, particularly in relation to policy, to help us move towards meaningful solutions. This study is an important piece of that jigsaw.
Plastic Pollution in the Caribbean
In our study, we identified 18 types of plastic off the coast of five Caribbean countries, including synthetic fibres, paint flakes and acrylics. Paint flakes may arise from the maritime and tourism industries, both of which are major contributors to the economies of the Caribbean region. But even if we know where these plastics have come from, how much opportunity is there to actually do something about it? And what might those actions look like? Our discussion participants shared lots of interesting thoughts and ideas.
- eXXpedition ambassador Juliet Carvalhal has successfully managed to decrease Aruba’s plastic footprint for the past six years, and is also working with Sint Maarten to fuel their plastic-free movement. To this end, she established the Impact Blue Foundation together with private sector partners to collaboratively research and devise inclusive solutions to phase out plastic reliance. In Juliet’s experience, the government has a tendency to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and believes this an area where more could be done to tackle plastic pollution in the Caribbean.
- eXXpedition Co-founder and Advisor Lucy Gilliam says there needs to be more done by the shipping industry. For example, a cruise ship carrying 300 people can create 706,000L of grey water a day, a significant source of microfibres, and ropes and marine coatings are a major source of microplastics. In addition, as shipping levels grow, shipping-generated rubbish grows too. More robust rules and regulations around waste management are needed, particularly for small island nations that struggle to cope with the huge amounts of waste coming off cruise ships.
- Interestingly, Vincent Sweeney, Head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Caribbean Sub-Regional Office, suggested that in order for the plastic pollution issue to gain traction, senior politicians need to focus on tackling land-based plastic pollution first. For example, talking about microplastics from ships is not going to get as much attention from the public or the media as eliminating single-use plastics that wash up on land. In the Caribbean, Vincent has seen growing support for measures to improve solid waste management and the circular economy.
Challenges and Successes
- One of the biggest problems in the Caribbean is their dependency on imports, which leads to a huge amount of waste. For example, it is estimated that between 23-28 million food containers are thrown away on a yearly basis. If there were more options for reuse, the Caribbean region would see a big reduction in the amount and type of waste generated. From a financial perspective, it would also be less costly for the consumer. Juliet Carvalhal and the Impact Blue Foundation are trying to shift single-use models to reusable models by looking at individual product needs for specific sectors.
- Most Caribbean countries have now introduced some type of ban on single use plastics, particularly shopping bags. Vincent Sweeney noted that leadership from the tourism industry has been key. Hotel chains guided by international standards are expected to operate globally the same way they operate locally and as a result they have led the way in introducing measures to ban single use plastics.
- In our study, plastic bans on single use items seemed to be effective on land, but in the coastal environment we still found microplastics from those items within surface water samples. Lead author Winnie Courtene-Jones reiterated that it takes a collective effort across the regions to implement effective policy.
- Professor Richard Thompson emphasised that the things we would do on land to prevent plastics from reaching the sea are different to what we would do on a vessel at sea. Thus, it is important to recognise the different types of policy measures that land and ocean-based sources of plastic require.
- eXXpedition Co-founder Emily Penn highlighted that while shipping is a big part of the plastic pollution problem, it is important that we don’t overlook other contributing factors. For example, fishing gear is built to be sturdy and often floats, making it obvious when lost at sea, yet small plastic fragments usually sink and can be easily overlooked. Our paper did a great job of capturing what’s going on in different parts of the water column, highlighting the need for a holistic approach to understanding plastic pollution.
- Vincent Sweeney reminded us that the government can’t solve the plastic pollution problem alone. It has to involve industry and international cooperation. A lot of the plastic we see may not be generated in that particular country, so all the measures put in place at a national level as a small island will not prevent plastic washing ashore.
In conclusion, there’s no silver bullet solution to plastic pollution that fits every product or every country. We all share one planet and wherever we live the ocean connects us – this study and subsequent discussion demonstrates why for any game-changing action to tackle ocean plastic pollution all sectors of society must come together in a holistic way cross the Caribbean region and beyond.
Visit our Caribbean Research Paper page to find out more.
Great thanks are extended to all the study authors, scientific partners, the vessel crew, shore team and guest crew on voyage legs 3-5 of eXXpedition Round the World. Thanks also to the Science Advisory Board and all sponsors who enabled this research, especially Travel Edge, TOMRA, SAP, Red Ensign Group, 11th Hour Racing and Slaughter and May.
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Thank you to 11th Hour Racing who are supporting this work.