In 2016, global plastic waste amounted to some 242 million metric tons. Of this, 137 million tonnes (or more than 57%) originated in East Asia, the Pacific, Europe, Central Asia and North America, much of which made its way into the ocean. In 2015, the Journal of Science surveyed 192 coastal countries and confirmed that Asian nations, most notably China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, were 13 of the 20 biggest contributors of marine plastic waste. But as is often the case, numbers alone do not tell the entire story.
Case in point: the little island of St. Lucia, which produces the 6th largest amount of plastic waste per capita in the Caribbean, generates more than four times the amount of plastic waste per person as China— the world’s largest plastic polluter in absolute terms— and is responsible for 1.2 times more improperly disposed plastic waste per capita than China. (Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser in https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution)
Of the top thirty global polluters per capita, ten are from the Caribbean region. These are Trinidad & Tobago, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Kitts & Nevis, Guyana, Barbados, St. Lucia, Bahamas, Grenada, Anguilla and Aruba; and every year, these ten island nations generate more plastic debris than the weight of 20,000 space shuttles.
The biggest culprit is Trinidad & Tobago, which produces a whopping 1.5 kilograms of waste per capita per day— the largest in the world. At least 0.19 kg per person per day of Trinidad & Tobago’s plastic debris is almost guaranteed to end up in the ocean due to improper disposal, amounting to more marine plastic originating in Trinidad & Tobago (per capita) than 98% of the countries in the world. (2010)
Inadequate waste management is at the root of the problem. Across a sample of Caribbean countries, an estimated 322,745 tonnes of plastic goes uncollected each year, resulting in 22% of households discarding waste in waterways or on land where it can end up in waterways (World Bank). According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 92% of marine litter in the Caribbean comes from land-based sources, as compared to the global average of 80%. (2014)
In July 2019, NGO, Parley for the Oceans shared a video depicting alarming amounts of plastic off the coast of the Dominican Republic. The video was captioned, “After three days of cleanups we have intercepted over 30 tonnes of plastic, but there is a lot more work to be done.”
Between 2006-2012, UNEP marine cleanup data for the Wider Caribbean Region revealed a total of 3,990,120 plastic debris items that were removed from coastal and underwater sites, covering 2,317 miles.
For a region that relies on the Caribbean Sea for more than $400 billion in income per year, the 18 billion pounds of plastic pollution that are disposed into the ocean each year is a real and dangerous threat.
According to National Geographic, “the Caribbean Sea’s $5 billion annual trade, its 200,000 direct jobs, its 100,000 ancillary services, food security for 40 million coastal inhabitants, and over $2 billion in dive tourism [are] at risk.”
14 Caribbean countries have begun to address this threat by banning the use of single-use plastic bags and/or Styrofoam and by implementing civic education programs.
There have also been a number of innovative approaches to managing plastic waste through reusing and repurposing. Since 2017, Hewlett Packard has been manufacturing ink cartridges made from over a million pounds of recycled plastic bottles from Haiti and NGO, Parley for the Oceans has been cleaning up coastal waters, repurposing plastic marine debris into a fibre called Parley Ocean Plastic which is used to make fashion items such as clothes, bags and shoes.
The fact is, however, that the most significant change will be felt when waste management and waste infrastructure, such as garbage collection, recycling centres and secure landfills are improved. According to a study published by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, mismanaged plastic waste generated each year could triple by 2060 if these systems are not brought up to scratch.
Increases in plastic pollution will disproportionately affect the Caribbean. After all, small coastal communities with ocean-dependent economies that are fraught with inadequate waste management systems are far more vulnerable to the impacts of plastic waste than their larger, more industrialized counterparts.
It is too simplistic to make global comparisons based on absolute numbers. Ranking total plastic waste production per country masks global systems of inequality and overlooks the vulnerability of small, seemingly “insignificant” coastal communities. Rather than vilifying individual countries, we must deconstruct systems of inequality that perpetuate plastic pollution and increase vulnerability among select populations.
An analysis of per capita plastic waste in the Caribbean, with a focus on causes, impacts and solutions, is a far more enlightening exercise than Asian finger-pointing will ever be.