For decades, the Caribbean islands, have been a popular mecca for its warm, glistening sun, vibrant culture, breath-taking underwater world and beautiful beaches. Whether it be swimming with the pigs in Exuma (Bahamas) , enjoying the grandeur of the resorts in Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) , strolling along the white-sand beaches of Negril/ rafting on the Rio Grande(Jamaica) or scuba diving in the pristine waters of Bonaire, the marine world has offered enjoyment to millions of visitors annually. Most importantly for us as islanders, it’s been our “bread and butter”—our main source of income (accounting for 18% of our Caribbean GDP) in many aspects: tourism, shipping and logistics, fisheries and oil and gas production. Unfortunately, our precious Blue Economy is under threat in so many ways; with warmer and rising seas, destruction of mangrove forests for coastal development, overfishing, oil spills, dynamiting coral reefs and more frequent and more intense hurricanes and storms, the vibrance of our underwater world is growing dim. Even more so, there lurks the danger of a silent killer that is severely polluting our coasts and Caribbean Sea—plastic.
Plastics may seem paradoxical to many of us now in light of their negative environmental impact but I would care for a second just to share the pivotal breakthroughs they had made in their earliest years (the late 19th and early 20th century). Celluloid, invented in 1870 (by John Wesley Hyatt), rescued the limping population of elephants remaining during the ivory trade of the 1860’s to become the substrate for manufacturing billiard balls and film for motion pictures. With the accidental synthesis of polyethylene in 1933, came the development of the plastic bag in 1959, resting on its intent to redeem the need for deforestation to produce paper bags. Fast forward to the present-day, where, over an estimated 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic have been produced since, and of this, nearly 80% of this ends up in landfills, in the natural landscapes and in our oceans and seas.
Many marine animals have died as a result of plastic ingestion or entrapment. Many beaches worldwide have also lost their appeal as the sand is quickly being outnumbered by plastic items and other garbage. Remote places like the Artic circle, the Cocos Islands and Antarctica are being found to be barraged by plastic! Marine plastic pollution is a global issue and our Caribbean waters are not exempt. Plastic bottles, bags, toys, take away food containers and many others have been recovered from our beaches, estuaries, mangrove forests, coral reefs and the ocean floor too. In Ocean Conservancy’s 2020 report of the 2019 International Coastal Clean Up Day , nearly 21 million pounds (9.4 million kg) of waste was recovered on that day alone. In Jamaica, my home, 146,473 pounds of waste were recovered but this merely scratches the surface of what remains. Recovery of plastics from our marine environment is challenging, especially in developing countries with limited physical and financial resources for even the development of robust waste management.
HOW DO PLASTICS GET THERE?
The journey begins the moment someone throws their empty potato chips bag out of the car window or throws their empty soda bottle on the street. With the help of the wind and rain, they travel through the storm drains that lead right to the sea. According to a World Bank report, 80% of marine plastic pollution in the Caribbean region comes from land-based sources! The 20% coming from sea-based sources also begin and end with the key culprit here—us; humans. Just stop for a minute and think about living a day without using any plastic item. For many of us, it seems next to impossible (although many have successfully achieved plastic-free living). Since its development in the 1950’s, plastic has allowed for the invention of so many revolutionary products that make life simpler and more efficient. However, whether because of carelessness, ignorance or limited resources for proper waste management, plastic pollution has now escaped our control. So much plastic has been generated that we’ve not designed the proper infrastructure to upcycle, recycle or repurpose it. Because of this, plastic items find its way to our Caribbean Sea by:
WHAT HAPPENS TO ALL THAT PLASTIC?— MORE PROBLEMS AND MICROPLASTICS
Plastics have been designed to be highly durable and are not biodegradable materials and they, therefore, do not safely incorporate themselves back into nature. They remain in the environment for decades and deplete the health of the thriving species of plants, animals and microorganisms. With the action of waves, plastic litter gets dispersed from nearshore to the open sea and right throughout the water column: some lighter items may stay near the surface and others that are denser sink deeper into the sea, tainting seagrass beds and coral reefs. Many sea turtles have come to their demise after mistaking a plastic bag for a jellyfish or getting stuck in the ring of a six-pack. A popular, but heartbreaking, video even surfaced some time in 2017 of a straw being removed from the nose of a turtle. In other cases, whales and birds have been found dead and their stomach contents full of plastic. Here are some real examples from the Caribbean of plastic pollution and its far-reaching impacts:
In 2019, in the beautiful Bahamas, Cristina, along with Kewin Lorenzen, found trails of litter and a huge sheet of plastic during an exploration dive of the bottom of a blue hole in Grand Bahama! How did that even get there? Dynamics of tides cause “syphon(suck water in) or spring(push water out) [of water] on rotation every six hours during the day for a total of four times a day”, Lorenzen reported to Newsflare. This is possibly one of the first recorded evidence of plastic pollution in the remotest parts of a Caribbean island.
Refuge Cay, a mangrove island in (in the Port Royal Mangroves) Jamaica was recently rescued through a labour-intensive restoration project (project launched in 2018) after suffocating from years of a continuous build-up of plastic and other marine litter. Before the rehab, there was significant loss of a number of trees in the heart of the forest because the root network was greatly trapped by the plethora of plastic that came adrift. Water could no longer flow through the cay and thus, it became stagnant and was becoming anoxic. Forest regeneration was therefore, greatly affected as seedlings had no floor to take root. These mangroves are important nesting areas for migratory birds and spawning of various species of commercially important fish. Additionally, they are terrific structures that guard against storm surge during hurricanes.
An Instagram post by Joey Brown, environmentalist and Hope Zoo curator in Jamaica revealed the harrowing post-mortem of a dead crocodile that was discovered by the local environmental authorities. He that over 22 plastic bags were found in the stomach of the semiaquatic reptile! 22 plastic bags! With that number, it is very likely that the crocodile may have fed much less than its normal appetite as those bags would have made him feel full for a very long while until his nutrition deteriorated and other complications developed.
Since plastics don’t break down or degrade, they disintegrate and break up into smaller pieces over time called microplastics. Microplastics are plastic particles less than 5mm in size and come from primary and secondary sources.
Primary microplastics are deliberately made at these sizes and are used in cosmetics like facial cleansers (This has now been banned in many countries), laundry soaps or used in industrial synthetic sand blasting. Secondary microplastics are smaller plastic pieces that broke off from larger plastic items during their journey to sea, constant battering by the waves and weathered by the UV light of the sun. Here are a few snapshots of microplastic reports in the Caribbean:
After great curiosity of the impacts of marine litter in Jamaica’s Kingston Harbour, myself and marine biologist, Professor Mona Webber, investigated the incidences of microplastic contamination and its potential impact on the ecosystem of the Port Royal Mangroves, located in the Harbour. Throughout the four sampling stations, we found 0-5.73 particles/m3, with 24% having similar sizes to many common species of zooplankton, and polyethylene dominating the microplastics found (78%). The mangroves are situated in the southern coast of the Harbour and it unfortunately receives much of the litter flowing from the north, where many industries, commercial areas and residential areas are situated. With a thriving spawning ground and oyster haven that is the bedrock of a lively artisanal and commercial fishery, plastics and microplastics are a great stressor to the continuity of these species of fish and shellfish, and a threat to the sustainability of these livelihoods.
Microplastic contamination has also been reported along the beaches of the Lesser Antilles from a study led by Professor Thijs Bosker, finding a maximum of 620±96 kg/dry sand on Grandes Cayes, Saint Martin.
In Grenada, researchers found microplastics in the guts of 34 different fish harvested from the Grenadian waters.
With smaller sizes, plastics become more readily available (bioavailable) to a wider range of marine organisms and become great stressors to the health of these creatures. Not only are plastics similar sizes to zooplankton, but researchers have reported the ingestion of microbeads(at sizes of 1.7-30.6µm) by zooplankton, which are a source of food for many foraging fish. For a long while, scientists have evidenced this appeal as consequent to an olfactory response to dimethylsulfide, a chemical released by algae that have made these microplastics their home. Pretty much, these microplastics smell like food and unfortunately, get eaten.
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE?—IS IT TOO LATE?
The global scientific community has been abuzz with hundreds of journal articles documenting the effects of plastics and microplastics in different geographical locations and a dynamic range of ecosystems. Additionally, there have been great developments in techniques used to sample for microplastics and in the application of geospatial technologies to identify hotspots of plastic pollution with the use of satellites. Most importantly, researchers like Dr. Chelsea Rochman, have been conducting metabolic studies to assess the impacts of the physical and chemical nature of consumed plastic and are providing guidance to the fisheries. This is essential to us especially as we are the final consumers in this marine food chain. A 2011 study revealed that, globally, 143.8 million tonnes of seafood is consumed annually, and this is a key staple for many of those in poor communities. So, you see, everything begins and ends with us. Our very source food is now tainted with plastics, and still, there remains a very wide gap in knowledge about its impact to our health.
In the region, though marine litter still remains an under-investigated issue in the Caribbean, we are uniting, through the Caribbean node of the Global Partnership for Marine Litter (GPML-Caribe). It is the collaborative effort of providing leadership, information, and resources in the efforts to reduce marine litter in the Caribbean Sea.
Many private sector companies in Jamaica, like Grace Kennedy and the Kingston Freeport terminal are making major contributions to projects that seek to rehabilitate severely polluted areas like the Kingston Harbour. Just in 2019, Grace Kennedy hosted a public lecture entitled “Clean Kingston Harbour: Pipe Dream or Pot of Gold?”, where panellists Professor Mona Webber (head of the Centre for Marine Sciences, UWI), Dr. Wayne Henry (Chairman and Director General of the Planning Institute of Jamaica) and Tijani Christian (current Chairperson of the Commonwealth Youth Council) facilitated discussions with the members of the public on the importance and relevance of cleaning the harbour and caring for our environment.
Caribbean governments have also taken up the mantle to hold their citizens accountable for reducing their usage of single-use plastic items. So far, 15 countries have implemented a ban on the use of plastic straws, plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam take-away food containers. Some are still in the process of developing the legislation but this is a move in the right direction. Here is an interactive map from the UN Environment Caribbean Environment Programme showing the status of bans in the Caribbean.
Are we acting too late on the issue of marine litter? Have we passed the turning point? Absolutely not! While we may have lost the handle on what cannot be removed from benthic and remote marine environments, the clean-up efforts have certainly been breathing new life into, once, suffering habitats. After the painstaking exercise of removing truck loads of garbage from Refuge Cay, the forest is coming alive again with new seedlings of mangroves thriving! Citizen-science and volunteerism for clean-ups definitely have some importance in raising awareness and influencing thought on changing behaviour and being more mindful of the environment.
Citizens on all levels, whether in civil, government or private-sector organizations all have a duty and responsibility to take action against marine litter.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Join a clean up
Annually, on the third Saturday of September, hundreds of thousands of volunteers worldwide devote time to cleaning up beaches, coral reefs and their general environment on International Coastal Clean-Up Day. It has certainly helped to raise awareness on the marine litter issue and reduced the amount of plastic in the environment. There are many organizations in your local area that you can volunteer with. Check out the list of organizations on page 22 of the ICC 2020 report.
Reduce your use
It can be quite difficult totally eliminate plastic from our daily lives, but it is very possible to REDUCE our use of plastics. When you go grocery shopping, take a reusable shopping bag with you. Did you know that you would spend more long-term buying bottled water than if you were to have a water filtration jug or tap attachment? In that way, you can reduce the number of plastic bottles that you discard and also save some money! But, if you must, think of RECYCLING them if you have access to a recycling system from your local authority. If you are a lover of smoothies like me, you may go through quite a bit of straws. However, it’s pretty easy and affordable to get a stainless steel straw that can be used for a very long time.
We all lead very busy lives and at times, cooking at home is just not possible. When you buy take-out, you can order larger portions that can last a few more days, and that way, you can save money on delivery/your own gas, and reduce the plastic containers that you get with your order.
REUSING your plastic items can also keep your plastic disposal low. Take-out containers can be reused for food storage. Larger plastic bottles can be used as a plant pot if you love gardening—and don’t worry, a little paint job can upcycle your old bottle and give it a great look fitting right into your colour scheme.
UPCYCLE! People have been finding very unique ways of making plastic waste useful again. Tires can be converted to a nice flower bed in your garden. In Columbia, building bricks have been made from plastic waste and are now being used to construct homes for many homeless persons. In Jamaica, entrepreneur Scheed Cole has used styrofoam and plastic waste to manufacture many beautifully-designed pots, sculptures and recycle bins through his company 360Recycle.
In reality though, many of our Caribbean nations are Small Island Developing States, with limited financial resources for a robust municipal waste management system. So, unfortunately, many persons will still, mindlessly, resort to dumping their garbage out of sight in the seas, the bushes or in the gullies. Even so, there are even more limited resources for extensive clean-up activities. Legislations must therefore, be robust and thorough on ensuring that plastic alternatives are affordable and easily accessible to the population, sanctions are issued swiftly and the effectiveness of these are constantly measured and reviewed.
On the cusp of the decade to the strive for achieving the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, we especially recognize Goal #6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), Goal #13 (Climate Action) and #14 (Life Below Water) in light of the marine litter issue. However, all 17 goals are still quite relevant to the context of marine litter.
Stay mindful of how your activities affect the health of our natural environment. Humans and nature are inter-connected and in turn, nature in poor health means a poor quality of life for us too. There is still hope aplenty for our Caribbean marine world and we all have a part to play in ensuring that we keep our environment clean.
By: Deanna Rose
Presentation at the CARICOM Regional Workshop on Environment Statistics and Climate Change Statistics, Grenada, 2019.
Obtained from The European Commission’s science and knowledge service