Draft legislation for the government’s January 1, 2020 ban on select single-use plastics and styrofoam products is expected to be released to the public for consultation by the end of August, according to the Ministry of Environment in response to questions posed by Perspective last week.
The Bahamas is set to join countries in the region and around the world in taking steps to battle the scourge of plastic waste.
A time frame of two weeks has been set for public consultation on the draft, which will likely prove an insufficient amount of time to give Bahamians and residents on every island a full understanding of what will be legal and illegal in the use of items that are currently staples in the Bahamian way of life.
It would also likely prove too short a time frame for businesses nationwide that have not yet made the switch, and must plan adjustments to business models and expenditure projections depending on what is outlined in the proposed legislation.
This is especially critical for smaller food service operators struggling with dwindling profit margins, limited flexibility and a customer base unwilling to countenance price increases that could be inevitable to cover the costs of switching to compostable or biodegradable materials.
Operators of several popular takeout eateries we visited expressed confusion about what is supposed to happen as of the January 1, 2020 target, and why the changes needed to be made at all.
Meanwhile single-use plastic bags are still the mainstay in most Bahamian homes and businesses, notwithstanding initiatives aimed at informing the public of the planned switch.
In a Perspective Facebook poll, 86 percent of respondents said they were aware of the planned January 1, 2020 ban while 14 percent said they were unaware. But most who commented on the poll expressed concern that there was little evidence of national readiness for the switch.
“Refuse what you cannot reuse”
United Nations (UN) Environment in its June 2019 circular stated that 70 to 85 percent of marine litter in the Caribbean Sea comes from land, and most of it consists of plastics. Together with agrochemical run-off and domestic wastewater, the UN calls this one of three priority pollutants for the wider Caribbean region.
UN Secretary General António Guterres stressed that our oceans will have more plastic than fish by 2050 if present trends continue. He has urged countries to reject single-use plastics and to “refuse what you can’t reuse”.
In the region, Antigua and Barbuda led the charge in 2016, according to UN Environment, with a five-phased approach to getting rid of plastics.
“Following extensive consultation with stakeholders, they decided to incorporate the ban into existing legislation rather than create new laws. They then ran the campaign ‘Make a difference one bag at a time’, and listed government-approved alternatives such as bagasse. As a result of these actions, the proportion of plastic dumped at landfills declined from 19.5 per cent in 2006 to 4.4 per cent in 2017.”
The cost factor
While going green is inarguably the right thing to do, it remains to be seen how many food service operators will find it an affordable thing to do, at least at the onset.
In our check of local prices, a switch to compostables from regular plastic and styrofoam containers and utensils can represent an average materials cost increase of 50 to 60 percent.
Those cost increases would invariably be passed on to consumers, but for restaurants and eateries that sell at a lower price point, consumers can be less than forgiving of price increases. After all, going up to $2.30 on a $2 breakfast can be a far harder pill to swallow than going up by 30 cents on a $40 meal.
“You need to lend some support to people who don’t understand how they are going to change their business model to accommodate the change so that everyone can move forward without throwing a huge wrench in your plan,” said Rebecca Tibbits, owner of Flying Fish Gastro Bar in Freeport during a conversation with Perspective on the proposed ban.
The popular restaurant has already made the switch to compostable products.
“While the government is telling us what they need us to do, they needed to have told us what they would do to incentivize businesses, like removing the duty and VAT from these items even if only for a set period, so that businesses could have incrementally moved up their prices to account for the increase in costs,” she added.
Another food service proprietor on the island was visibly distressed at the idea of having to spend more on materials and potentially increase her prices.
“I already don’t make much as it is,” she bemoaned. “I will have to pass this onto my customers but will they want to pay it?”
Seafood vendor Graham Smith told Perspective that he is looking into sourcing some of his materials from Panama, but stated his concern that the “small man” will struggle to buy the newer, costlier products.
Perspective questioned Finance Minister Peter Turnquest on the current tariff structure for compostable and biodegradable items, particularly in light of the 2019/2020 budget’s July 1 tariff increase to 45 percent from five percent on all biodegradable plastics, ultimately making the very alternative items the Ministry of Environment currently recommends for use even more expensive.
“Compostable alternatives such as utensils, straws, food containers and cups have been separated in the tariff code and assigned new codes to allow for duty reductions in preparation for the upcoming ban,” he advised. “These changes are also a part of the amendment to be tabled in Parliament.”
As for costing within the public sector, Turnquest said various agencies and ministries were completing their spending plans in respect of the switch to alternative items, though he expressed to Perspective the view that increases in costs are expected to be minimal in relation to overall expenditure.
Given the importance of enforcement at the border as the January 1 import ban approaches, we questioned the minister on how the customs department has been trained to detect which items should be allowed entry and which should not.
“There has been no specific training on the subject matter,” he noted. “However, as is custom, they will conduct research online or undertake other appropriate investigation to ensure that the appropriate rate of duty is charged.”
The environmental levy
Via its official website, the Ministry of Environment indicates a push to secure sponsors to purchase reusable bags for free nationwide distribution so as to facilitate the desired switch from single-use plastic bags.
It prompted us to contact the Ministry of Finance for information on how much money the government has collected in environmental levy fees charged at the border on selected imported items.
Back in 2013, the former administration instituted an environmental levy on imports for what it at the time said would be the sustainable disposal of designated items. An Environmental Levy Fund was to be created in law so that generated revenue would not go into the Consolidated Fund for general expenditure purposes.
The Levy Fund was never created, and items that continue to attract the levy are still being disposed of and handled at our landfills as they always have been.
According to figures provided to Perspective by Acting Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson, the government has collected over $50.2 million in environmental levy fees since that time.
The current fiscal budget puts projected revenue from the levy at $11.92 million.
According to the environment ministry, over 25,000 reusable bags have been distributed through AML foods via the ministry’s corporate sponsor Aliv.
Given that the government’s plan to implement a plastics and styrofoam ban was announced during the previous budget year and presumably was conceptualized before that time, fees collected from the environmental levy ought to have been used in this budget year to finance a widespread government initiative where free reusable bags could have been distributed through government offices and agencies as well as via partnerships with private sector organizations.
We are already paying multiplied millions in fees we were told are supposed to aid in cleaning up our environment.
The government ought to have earmarked our money to facilitate just that.