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Costa Rica’s Newly-Elected Government is Continuing the Effort to Ban Single-Use Plastics by 2021

The first public announcement of Costa Rica ’s future plastics ban first came on World Environment Day on June 5, 2017, at a time when 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics had been manufactured to date around the world — most of which has ended up as litter.  This revolutionary goal has just been echoed by the newly-elected government, led by President Carlos Alvarado, in honor of the one year anniversary of this commitment.

Costa Rica’s proposed ban on single-use plastics comes at a time when plastic is truly choking our global waters.  Every minute on our planet, a garbage truck’s worth of plastic ends up in our oceans. Currently there is a garbage patch bigger than Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean and it even estimated that by 2050, the plastic in the ocean will outnumber the amount of fish.  Even as a so-called global environmental leader, Costa Rica currently produces 400 tonnes of solid waste every day and Ticos discard 1.5 million plastic bottles every day.  

While plastics typically constitute approximately 10% of total discarded waste, they represent a much greater proportion of the debris accumulating on shorelines.  Disposable plastic items are especially worrisome because compared to other forms of trash, they take the longest to biodegrade, for example 450 years for a single bottle and 20 years for thin shopping bag.  

Image: Environmental Protection Authority, Victoria

Single or disposable plastic is a man-made compound used only once and thrown away.  These plastics are used to make everyday “luxury” items like straws, coffee stirrers, plastic bags, water bottles, lids, etc.

In 2018, Costa Rica’s government started making changes towards achieving a national goal to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2021 through a multi-effort strategy that financially incentivizes private and public institutions to stop using single-use plastics.  The main objective is for at least 80 percent of the country’s public agencies, municipalities and businesses replace their disposable plastic packaging with materials that have a lower environmental impact.

The plastics ban initiative is being led by a number of interested constituents: Costa Rica’s Ministries of Health and Environment and Energy (MINAE), the United Nations Development Programme, local governments, civil society, and various private sector groups.  MINAE has announced that it has already ordered all its departments to purchase only products made from renewable, compostable and biodegradable materials.

History of the backlash against plastic

In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban disposable plastic shopping bags after they were found to have choked the drainage system during devastating floods.  Other countries including South Africa, Rwanda, China, Australia and Italy followed suit soon after.  Hawaii was the first U.S. state to ban the bag at checkouts and restaurants and the UK and Canada have implemented fees for plastic bags at grocery stores.

In 2015, a video of marine biologists pulling a plastic straw from the nostril of a sea turtle off the coast of Costa Rica went viral.  The shocking eight-minute video showed the male Olive Ridley turtle bleeding as the scientists struggled to extract the straw. The research team posted their footage online to raise awareness of the harm that plastics cause to marine life.  

This same year, the UN Environment Programme launched #CleanSeas, a major global campaign to stop plastic ending up in our oceans. Ten countries have already joined, including: Belgium, Costa Rica, France, Grenada, Indonesia, Norway, Panama, Saint Lucia, Sierra Leone and Uruguay.

As a global environmental leader, Costa Rica wants to be the first country to achieve a comprehensive national strategy to eliminate single-use plastics by 2021, coinciding with the nation’s goal of becoming carbon neutral – a goal set up in 2007.  

Although some plastics can be recycled, too many plastics are not. According to the Clean Air Council (CAC), only one-quarter of 1% of the more than 7 billion pounds of discarded polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is recycled each year in the U.S.

Here are some other facts from the CAC about plastics in the U.S.:

  • The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups every year.
  • During 2009ʼs International Coastal Cleanup, the Ocean Conservancy found that plastic bags were the second-most common kind of waste found, at one out of ten items removed.
  • Chlorine production for PVC uses almost as much energy as the annual output of eight medium-sized nuclear power plants each year.
  • After Ireland created a 15-cent charge per plastic bag in 2002, bag consumption dropped by 90%. In 2008, the average person in Ireland used 27 plastic bags, while the average person in Britain used 220. The program has raised millions of euros in revenue.
  • The state of California spends about 25 million dollars sending plastic bags to landfill each year and another 8.5 million dollars to remove littered bags from streets.
  • Every year, Americans use approximately 1 billion shopping bags, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste.
  • Less than 1% of plastic bags are recycled each year. Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000 USD.
  • The city of San Francisco determined that it costs 17 cents for them to handle each discarded bag.

The problem of plastics in the ocean was initially thought to be aesthetic, but this thinking has morphed into other realizations. We now know that plastics cause the choking and entanglement of wildlife, and that plastics transport persistent organic pollutants, as well as non-indigenous species to new locations and the distribution of algae associated with red tides.

What will Costa Ricans do without plastics?

Many forward-thinking individuals are investing in the production of new bio-degradable and water-soluble plastics to serve the growing demand for alternatives to single-use plastics.  Products made of renewable materials such as plant starches are becoming a more available, and we’re also seeing a return to reusable, non-plastic containers.

Below are some popular examples of alternatives to single-use plastics:

  • An edible water bottle is being promoted in the U.K. through a crowdfunding campaign with the hope of replacing millions of plastic bottles thrown away every year. More than £500,000 has been raised so far.
  • An Indonesian entrepreneur has created a material with plastic-like qualities to be manufactured not from petroleum products but from the remains of the cassava plant.
  • An eco-friendly process can create bags using 12 ingredients — potatoes, tapioca, corn, natural starch, vegetable oil, banana, and flower oil. Natural ingredients are liquefied and taken through a six-step process. Even the paints used to print on the bags are all natural and organic.
  • Chitosan, an organic compound found in the shells of crustaceans like shrimp, crabs, and other shellfish products, can become a human-made polymer.
  • A six-pack beer ring is made from brewing byproducts and results in a composite that marine life can eat as it melts in seawater.
  • An explosion of interest in polymers is taking place so that single-use items could be made from renewable resources and biodegrade easily and harmlessly.
  • Glass, which is made from sand, is a renewable resource that doesn’t contain chemicals that can leach into food or the human body. It’s easily recycled or repurposed for storing leftovers.
  • Costa Rican college students have already discovered a plastic alternative made from bananas that looks to be 5 times stronger than plastic and will disintegrate in just 18 months.

Costa Rica’s larger social justice mission

In association with the United Nations Development Programme, the country’s Sustainable Development Goals outline how it is the responsibility of all sectors and people to ensure a balance between the social, economic, and environmental realms. Marginalized people must be incorporated into the process, so that challenges, such as the management of solid waste and its impacts on people, can be overcome by a broad range of constituents. The upcoming plastics ban must find a way for impoverished persons to have daily alternatives to single-use plastics, too, if the initiative is to be for the good of all. 

Local officials point out in their statement that Costa Rica’s impressive environmental record still has room for improvement.  Although the country has been an example to the world by reversing deforestation and doubling its forest cover from 26 percent in 1984 to more than 52 percent this year, today one fifth of the 4,000 tonnes of solid waste produced daily is not collected and ends up as part of the Costa Rican landscape, also polluting rivers and beaches.

According to Edgar Gutiérrez, former Minister of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica:  

“Being a country free of single use plastics is our mantra and our mission. It’s not going to be easy, and the government can’t do it alone. To promote these changes, we need all sectors—public and private—to commit to actions to replace single-use plastic through five strategic actions: municipal incentives, policies and institutional guidelines for suppliers; replacement of single-use plastic products; research and development—and investment in strategic initiatives. We also need the leadership and participation of all: women, men, boys and girls.” 

Jaco is the first Costa Rican city to push a major no-plastic initiative

#SinPajillaPorFavor is a campaign that calls on restaurants and other businesses to unite to reduce single-use plastics.  The Jaco campaign is directed by the Central Pacific Chamber of Tourism and Sustainable Commerce (CATUCOSO) in order to improve the image of the Central Pacific beach and raise awareness among residents about environmental issues. More than 60 hotels, restaurant and commerce business leaders have joined the effort.

“Some of the partners are using boxes instead of plastic bags in their stores, including the Ferretería del Pacífico. In the case that plastic can’t be eliminated, various businesses are using oxo-biodegradable bags in order to give their clients a more eco-friendly option,” said Maria José Arguedas, treasurer for CATUCOSO.  

It’s time that we work together to solve a major problem that is entirely man-made because it reasons to assume that it is up to us to reverse the mess that we are creating.