Big and small companies in breach
42 before court for possession of banned plastic bags; minister signals higher penalties and fines
A shopper carries goods in a plastic bag which is among those banned.

SENATOR Matthew Samuda, the minister with responsibility for environment, says large companies are not the only ones guilty of circumventing the ban on certain sizes of plastic bags and Styrofoam products, but that small operations have also been finding ways to bend the rules without outright breaking the law.

Speaking with the Jamaica Observer on Wednesday, he signalled that higher penalties and fines are coming for the illegal importation of plastic bags measuring 24 inches by 24 inches (scandal bags) or smaller, and distributing them; and expanded polystyrene products. The ban, which also includes plastic drinking straws, is set out in ministerial orders under the National Resources and Conservation Authority (NRCA), and Trade Acts.

He noted that currently there are 42 prosecutions underway for breaches. "And it's not limited to uptown or downtown, rural or urban. We will be increasing that enforcement drive and I expect those numbers to increase significantly," the minister advised.Samuda said three years into the regime, lessons have been learnt and vigilance will have to be significantly ramped up, including revisiting the legislative framework.

He noted indications given by Prime Minister Andrew Holness recently of imminent changes to the NRCA Act to provide for increased penalties and fines or environmental breaches."We found some loopholes in the regulations, and we will tighten them in short order," Samuda said.He pointed out that it's not only large operations who are circumventing the policy: "No public policy is perfect.

What we have found in the marketplace creeping in is that there are commercial interests — big and small — who are finding creative ways, going right outside of the specifications of the regulations which were gazetted, so for instance, we are seeing some 25-inch bags on the marketplace. Those sort of things."Samuda, however, made it clear that the Government is intent on closing those gaps. "We are not going to lose the fight. It's unfortunate that companies will seek to do that, whether big or small. We will be moving the goalpost significantly and making it more difficult for those who seek to continue to pollute through plastic waste."

He argued that this was not an "uptown vs downtown" issue. He said markets are one of the entities which get a lot of flak for facilitating plastic bags, but these bags are not generally utilised for carrying agricultural products. "Markets do sell other things and there are a thriving distributive trade in commercial districts and markets, and we do see some breaches in that area, but this isn't an uptown vs downtown problem.

We are seeing breaches in all segments of society even though the vast majority of society is compliant," he stated. At the same time, the minister noted that there are a number of challenges at Jamaica Customs around the importation of plastic bags, although the agency has played its part in sustaining the ban on these single-use plastic bags.

"There is a category of goods called mixed grocery containers [and] I don't know how many of those are searched roof to ceiling. A box of plastic bags is a lot of plastic bags, so a single box of scandal bags come in and [there are] issues. There are technical issues that I would imagine make it difficult for them to search for everyone," he explained.

The plastic and Styrofoam ban became effective on January 1, 2019. The penalties for breaches under the Trade Act, 2018 is $2 million, while under the NRCA Act the fine is $50,000. Offenders also risk a maximum prison penalty of two years.

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

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