During eXXpedition’s seventh Virtual Voyage, the multidisciplinary crew took part in a virtual discussion with local representatives from the Caribbean to talk about the local challenges of the global plastics issue. This post summarises the thoughts, ideas, challenges and solutions discussed during the session.
The Caribbean is a region of the Americas consisting of the Caribbean Sea, its islands, and the surrounding coasts. The region is located in the Western Hemisphere, between Central and North America. The islands of the Caribbean are sorted into three main island groups, The Bahamas, the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles. Situated largely on the Caribbean Plate, the area comprises more than seven thousand islands, islets, reefs, and cays. The name “Caribbean” is derived from “Caribs,” a Native American tribe of the Lesser Antilles.
The Caribbean is a biodiversity hotspot. It has over 11,000 plant species, about 72 of which are found only in this region. Its diverse animal species include many exotic fish and birds. With 26,000 km of coral reefs, the Caribbean region represents 7% of the world total coral reef ecosystems. The shallow marine environment contains 25 coral genera, 117 sponges, 633 molluscs, over 1400 fishes, 76 sharks, 45 shrimps, and 23 seabirds species. Due to a high degree of connectivity, marine habitats share many of the same marine species, especially migrating species.
The Plastics Issue
Caribbean nations rank as 10 of the top 30 global plastic polluters (per capita), including Trinidad & Tobago, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Kitts & Nevis, Guyana, Barbados, St. Lucia, Bahamas, Grenada, Anguilla, and Aruba. 70 to 85% of marine litter in the Caribbean Sea comes from land, and most of it consists of plastics. Facing waste management challenges, World Bank data estimates that 322,745 tons of plastic goes uncollected in the Caribbean each year. Together with agrochemical run-off and domestic wastewater, it is one of three priority pollutants for the wider Caribbean region.
Governments are taking note. Throughout the region, many have banned, or are considering bans on single-use plastics, including plastic bags and Styrofoam. More than 18 territories have banned single-use plastics or Styrofoam products and many more are discussing it within government or have begun public consultations.
“Without knowing where the plastic is coming from, it’s really hard for us to be able to make informed decisioned about upstream solutions.”
Representatives from the Caribbean including Marine Scientist, La Daana Kanhai, and Geography Teacher, Leah Fouchong, joined a discussion with the eXXpedition crew, providing an insight into the issues it faces in terms of environmental impact and waste management. Read the highlights below:
- The Caribbean region relies heavily on importing the majority of their consumption needs.
- Collaboration isn’t always easy especially with different political backgrounds, different mother nations. If you look at Saint Martin island specifically, they are composed of a French side and a Dutch side. So there are many challenges when looking at policies and systems they have in place.
- Caribbean islands have limited resources, meaning the economies are heavily dependent on tourism. This places a great reliance on blue economy and on imports.
- Lack of financing for solid waste management systems has not kept pace with growth in waste quantities.
- Natural disasters magnify the waste generation on these islands – and there’s no budget available to tackle the consequences of them (e.g. in 2017, the amount of waste and debris generated overnight by hurricane Irma was equivalent of 2.5 years of waste generation in St. Martin).
“Ultimately, about 85% of marine litter in the Caribbean Sea comes from land so we need to look back on land for the solutions.”
- Shift single-use models to reusable models by looking at individual product needs for specific sectors.
- Policy designs to curb plastic use and corresponding waste/leakage need to have an island context incorporated and be island-specific based on available infrastructure and capacity for processing (systems or ecosystem approach).
- 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.
- Most Caribbean countries have now introduced some type of ban on single use plastics, particularly shopping bags.
“Part of the solution is being able to have conversations like this and learn from one another.”
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Thank you to 11th Hour Racing who are supporting this work.