There have long been calls for more protective environmental policies on St. Maarten, including calls to ban single-use plastics. While government has been slow to make such decisions, (although a ban on single-use plastic bags was brought forward by Parliament Chairwoman Sarah Wescot-Williams in 2018), several local businesses have taken steps to eliminate plastic straws and other related products.

A recent report, written by staff of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/ the World Bank, called “Marine Pollution in the Caribbean: Not a Minute to Waste,” delves into the subject – studying the extent of plastic marine pollution, providing oversight of changes being made, and proposing a 12-point action agenda, “taking specific forward looking and concrete steps in support of a healthy, productive and resilient Caribbean Sea.”

Here are just a few key conclusions:

“The environmental, social and economic impacts of marine pollution in the Caribbean have been well documented over the last three decades and expose a very serious threat to the sustainable development… The ability of governments to effectively and sustainably manage the region’s natural resource base will determine the future of the countries’ economies and their success in combating poverty and reversing socio-economic inequalities. The well-being of the growing population…requires that these issues and trends be addressed urgently.”

“Marine pollution has been growing at alarming rates in the WCR [wider Caribbean region]. Caribbean SIDS [Small Island Developing States] are especially vulnerable to the impacts of pollution as it leads to reduced revenues from the tourism and fishing industries…”

“Marine pollution damage goes beyond marine ecosystems and biodiversity. It is already affecting human health and major economic activities…”

“The destruction of marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds, poses particular threats to the livelihoods of people working in tourism and fisheries and to protection from storms and hurricanes.”

“A snapshot of the level of litter in coastal areas, for selected countries featured in [a report by Ocean Conservancy – ed.], shows that an average of 2,014 litter items per kilometre were found on beaches and coastal areas as compared to a global average of 573. The most common marine litter found was plastic bottles, in addition to other single-use plastic items, and foam containers.”

“The costs of inaction will likely be greater than those of pollution prevention and management, given the economic impact on sectors such as tourism and fisheries.

Who has taken action?

There are currently 14 Caribbean countries that have banned/restricted plastic bags and/or Styrofoam as part of their efforts to tackle marine pollution. Others are following suit, and adopting a combination of policy and infrastructure measures to deal with this issue in an integrated manner, according to the report.

The table shows these countries. It is edited for brevity, and excludes Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico which have very limited restrictions. The full report is available on the World Bank website.

A Ban on Plastic Bags – the Experience of Antigua and Barbuda

In Antigua and Barbuda, 90 percent of all plastic waste was bags distributed by supermarkets. By banning Styrofoam, plastic bags, and other single-use food service items, the proportion of plastic at the landfill dropped from 19.5 percent in 2006 to 4.4 percent in 2017.

The ban on plastic bags occurred in two phases – the first banned the importation of plastic shopping bags, the second banned use of the bags. An eight-step implementation process was undertaken:

(1) the announcement of the ban and its two phases, (2) consultations with external and internal stakeholders, (3) additional consultations with supermarkets to resolve identified challenges, (4) Cabinet approval, (5) drafting of regulations, (6) gazetting of regulations, (7) notifications to all stakeholders that the regulations had been gazetted, and (8) final consultations with external agencies and additional awareness initiatives.

This eight-step plan was critical to the success of the ban. The two phases gave stakeholders time to prepare for the eventual banning of all plastic bags while continuous dialogue improved participation and compliance (UNEP-CEP in press).