'Knee-jerk ban'

Mahfood says new plastic policy ignores problem of solid waste management

Senior staff reporters

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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Wisynco Group Chairman William Mahfood says yesterday's announced ban on some categories of plastic packaging materials by the Government is a knee-jerk reaction to what is really an overall solid waste issue that needs to be addressed.

“There is no question that we have a national crisis, but the issue is that the crisis that we have is a national solid waste crisis and the Government, in trying to resolve the issue, is plugging some small holes rather than dealing with the bigger issue, which is the solid waste,” Mahfood told the Jamaica Observer.

Daryl Vaz, the minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, announced the ban at a news briefing at Jamaica House in response to the threat from marine litter to the environment.

According to Vaz, as at January 1, 2019, a ban will be imposed on the import, manufacture, distribution, and use of all single-use plastic carrier bags, with dimensions at or below 24 inches by 24 inches.

These will include bags commonly referred to as “scandal bags” and “T-shirt bags”, which are used primarily in the retail and wholesale trades. However, the ban will not apply to single-use plastic bags used to maintain public health or food safety standards, such as those used to package raw meats, flour, sugar, rice, and baked goods such as bread.

Vaz also announced that a ban would be instituted on the import and manufacture of plastic drinking straws as at January 1, 2019. But he explained that there would be no ban on wax-lined paper straws, or other non-plastic straws.

The importation of straws attached to lunch boxes and drink pouches will also be banned on January 1, 2021.

Vaz said that the deadline was arrived at based on discussions held with the private sector, regarding the time frame for converting their existing equipment.

He also noted that for the medical sector, as well as people with disabilities, drinking straws made from alternative materials such as paper or bamboo are not always suitable. In light of this, exemptions will be examined in consultation with key stakeholders, and applications for exemptions should be made through the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

With regard to the single-use shopping bags made of polyethylene and commonly branded by retailers, Vaz said that manufacturers and importers need to apply to NEPA for limited exemptions. However, those exemptions will not continue after January 1, 2021.

He said that the Government would explore, with the Development Bank of Jamaica and the Ex-Im Bank, possible mechanisms to assist companies in reconfiguring and/or re-tooling their equipment and facilities for material substitution by using “design for environment” methods to enhance their sustainability and profitability.

“Consumers are encouraged to utilise reusable carrier bags, particularly those produced by local enterprises,” Vaz said.

Explaining the ban further, Vaz said that commencing January 1, 2019, the Government will institute a ban on the importation of expanded polystyrene foam, commonly called styrofoam, for use in the food and beverage industries.

In addition, the local manufacturing and distribution of polystyrene foam as finished goods in the food and beverage industries will end as at January 1, 2020.

He said that the use of polystyrene for the packaging of food items, such as raw meats, would be exempted. Producers of goods utilising this type of packaging must apply to NEPA for limited exemptions as well.

“Industry is encouraged to manufacture or distribute paper-based and other environmentally friendly alternatives for the domestic market,” Vaz urged.

He said that it has been universally accepted that small island developing states like Jamaica are particularly vulnerable to global environmental challenges, including marine litter.

“Our vulnerability to marine plastic litter is even greater, given the magnitude of the problem, which can have significant negative impact on economic sectors, such as tourism and fisheries, which are critical to our economic growth and development,” he said.

However, Mahfood argued that while plastics are harmful to the environment, proper management of solid waste can prevent adverse side effects.

“I don't think it is necessarily in the country's long-term interest,” he said of the ban. “But we understand that this is the way the world is going, so in the short term we will just make adjustments to our business to accommodate.

He said the alternatives would be paperboard, or packages made out of sugarcane, but those are four or five times more expensive than styrofoam. “So there is going to be a significant economic impact to the market… the price of a lunch will go up… those are the kinds of things that we need to be very mindful of. And those people who can't afford the more expensive packages we may end up going back to things that could pose potential health risks; people might be serving food in foil paper, or paper bags, that sort of thing,” he said.

Mahfood is also of the view that there was not enough consultation with people who will be most affected by the new policy.

“There must be at least 3,000 small cook shops and small restaurants around Jamaica and I don't think any consultation was done with those people. The plastic committee that was formed should have done more collaboration and consultation with that group because they're going to be the ones most impacted,” he said.

Mahfood said his business has been looking at non-plastic and non-styrofoam alternatives but has not identified one that is practical nor economically viable. “They're very, very expensive…(but) we are still looking and hopefully over the course of the next two years we will be able to identify something. If not, unfortunately then we would have no choice but to shut that factory down and the challenge is we have 150 employees who work in that area, so that would be another concern,” he stated.

Wisynco is the largest producer of styrofoam and plastic in the island.

He noted also that the Government has made it clear that even biodegradable styrofoam would still be outlawed.

Meanwhile, Jamaica Environment Trust called the new regulations a “bold move” by the Government which is in line with global trends, and represents a positive shift in environmental policy.

At the same time the environmental lobby said it shares the concerns of several stakeholders about the impact the ban on scandal bags will have on the containerisation of garbage by households.

“These types of plastic bags have been well-established as 'free' garbage bags and are used by many Jamaicans for this purpose,” JET said, adding that it strongly recommends that the Government immediately addresses this concern.

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