Plastic pollution in tourism destinations: its impact and the way forward
I had the opportunity to participate in a webinar on October 29, 2019 organized by the One Planet Travel with Care under the Sustainable Tourism Programme on the topic “Addressing Plastic Pollutions in Tourism Destinations”. This important topic was discussed by two panelists, Carl Hunter, chair of the Saint Lucia Hospitality and Tourism Association Environment Committee; and Saskia Pepping, project manager of MVO Nederland. Ignacio Sanchez Diaz, resource efficiency program officer, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), moderated the session. The webinar discussed how destinations can assess and reduce plastic pollution by improving their planning and management; learning more about existing alternatives to plastic to revisit procurement strategies; exploring how the tourism sector can become a catalyzer for change; and finding innovative solutions to address plastic pollution and marine litter.
The discussion was timely as The Bahamas is expected to join more than 40 countries that have introduced a ban on single use plastic bags. The government’s proposed ban on plastic bags is set to take effect in January 2020. Allow me to highlight some of the ideas presented in this webinar that are important for The Bahamas to understand as we prepare to enforce the plastic ban in the new year. How is this ban important as we continue our agenda to make the tourism industry in The Bahamas more responsible and sustainable?
One Planet Travel with Care is a global and diversified network involving over 160 actors with one common goal – decoupling tourism growth from the consumption of finite natural resources. The 2019 World Bank Group Report on marine pollution in the Caribbean showed that the economy of the region depends heavily on tourism. Tourism sectors within the Caribbean had revenues of US$57 billion in 2017; represent 15 percent of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP); and receive more than 30 million visitors annually. As the industry grows, more natural resources are taken, especially from the oceans. Consequently, the levels of marine litter, mainly of single-use plastics, has increased significantly. The World Bank report also highlighted that the current situation on plastic pollution in the Caribbean is alarming – 12 percent of the solid waste generated is plastics; 322.745 tons of plastic are not collected every year (in selected countries of the Caribbean); there are 200,000 pieces of plastic waste per square kilometers; and plastic bottles represent 21 percent of marine litter. These statistics are alarming!
Many countries across the globe in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America have initiated some form of ban or control on single-use plastics and Styrofoam. Some have worked well and some have not. Plastic pollution threatens tourism-dependent nations, especially small island developing states (SIDS) like The Bahamas. The United Nations Economic Programme (UNEP) Report in 2017 has indicated that marine litter costs about US$13 billion per year, out of which the annual loss in tourism is US$622 million. Thus, this affects the tourism supply chain from food production to the provision of specialized services. The report further highlighted the impact of plastics on the degradation of beaches, coral reefs and mangroves; and flooding due to plastic bottles, plastic bags and Styrofoam clogging water bodies. Other impacts include contamination of the human food chain due to the intake of microplastics by fish and marine life; increased risk of disease transmission – the obstruction of sewer networks creates the ideal scenario for mosquito breeding – and the release of toxic chemicals and emissions if burned.
In an archipelagic nation like The Bahamas, we cannot escape the impact of plastic on our already fragile ecosystem. Tourism is the most important industry in The Bahamas and any human action that jeopardizes the very environment that most tourists come for has to be prevented by all stakeholders, including the local community and the visiting tourist.
Best approach from Saint Lucia and MVO Nederland
The tourism industry in Saint Lucia took the decision that straws, miniature amenity product bottles and branding stickers on toilet rolls are not needed. Although this simple step might seem petty, the impact in reducing the plastic-based waste in touristic sites was significant. Further, the Saint Lucia tourism industry researched alternative traditional utensils to replace plastic ones. The traditional use of calabash, coconut and bamboo for containers and cups is an innovative and sustainable approach in reducing disposable plastic cutleries. They offer a cool alternative to single-use food and drink containers. Sugarcane bagasse food containers are also widely used in place of Styrofoam ones.
Further, edible cutlery made from a local food source was introduced as their production is local and supports employment for production and sales. They are 100 percent edible or biodegradable. Saint Lucia’s experience shows that to make effective sustainable decisions for alternatives, we must understand the abilities of our location’s waste management systems, study each need and select the appropriate alternative for our destination or culture. This is not a “one size fits all” solution. We should not shy away from returning to traditional ways if necessary as this actually enhances the guest experience, introduces them to our culture and demonstrates our commitment to sustainability.
MVO Nederland is the biggest business network on corporate social responsibility in Europe with 2,000 businesses as their partners. One of the corporate social responsibility goals that they undertook was a plastic pollution free tourism industry in Bali, Indonesia. The aim was to abolish the use of single use plastics from the tourism industry and introduce circular business models to bring plastic waste management to a higher level. Awareness was created in reducing plastic waste via tour operators and raised in the supply chain by destination management companies. Hence, all of the supply chains in the industry provided infrastructure for the reduction of plastics. This was done to protect the tourism reliant island from further destruction due to plastic waste.
Even African countries are moving to control the use of plastics. For example, Tanzania and Kenya have banned the use of lightweight plastic bags. Hence, persons cannot arrive at any of their airports with these items. Zip-lock bags with cosmetics must be left on the aircraft. Garbage bags, favored by those who book African safaris from online call centers, and even plastic shopping bags are now banned.
The Bahamas’ plastic agenda for tourism
As we approach the deadline to comply with the single-use plastic and Styrofoam ban in 2020 in The Bahamas, there seems to still be an inadequate understanding and commitment from various stakeholders and people at large on how this important world agenda can be fulfilled. Minister of the Environment and Housing Romauld Ferreira reported on June 13, 2019, “The government will ensure that the move offers minimal disruption to businesses and their operation.” He further added that his ministry will continue to inform and educate the public. The message of a healthier Bahamas through this initiative is associated with various forms of environmental pollution and environmental degradation which ultimately affects an individual’s health and well-being.
A small island developing state (SIDS) like The Bahamas will be impacted severely by the uncontrolled use of plastic and Styrofoam waste as it affects human health, animals and the environment in the long term. Due to the isolated nature of an archipelago with condensed populations in certain islands, coupled with a tourist dominated economy, finding the ideal solutions to solid waste management especially plastics and Styrofoam can be a challenge. However, it is not impossible.
For a country reliant on sun, sand and sea as its main pull factor for tourism, the widespread plastic/Styrofoam pollution and contamination will continue to threaten the marine and terrestrial biodiversity of this fragile archipelago. Litter scattered by local communities and visitors on public beaches, especially post-festivals, diminishes the beauty of the picturesque beaches. According to the June 2019 report by the minister of the environment and housing, “At the current rate of plastic pollution, the Bahamas plastic movement estimates that it could cause The Bahamas up to $8.5 million in tourism losses annually, a loss we cannot afford.”
Led by the Ministry of the Environment and Housing, an inclusive national campaign to phase out single-use plastics (this includes plastic bags, straws, food utensils and Styrofoam containers) by 2020 was formalized. The taskforce leading this initiative comprises the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Finance, the Customs Department, University of The Bahamas, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers’ Federation (BCCEC), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Atlantis, Paradise Island and Baha Mar Ltd.
This certainly is the initial step towards developing a national waste management strategy for The Bahamas. It is mindboggling that plastics that are used very briefly end up in landfills and remain in the environment for the next ten decades before they break down. Hence, this timely ban provides an opportunity to further reduce and control the use of plastics/Styrofoam.
The ban has a serious impact on the tourism industry. Plastics and Styrofoam are widely used in food and retail outlets by the local community and visitors. Besides developing affordable alternatives, outlining the correct protocol to reduce taxes on these alternatives is critical as incentives for business operators. Hence, on January 1, 2020, the ban on items such as plastic straws, plastic food utensils, Styrofoam food containers and cups and plastic bags at point-of-sale will be enforced. Garbage bags are not included in this phase of the ban. According to the Ministry of Environment and Housing, the prohibited items will be banned from being imported into the country as of December 31, 2019. Businesses will have until July 1, 2020 to clear their existing stocks before fines are imposed as per section 4 of the Environmental Protection (Control of Plastic Pollution) Bill 2019. Under this law, business operators will be required to implement a bag check out fee in the range of 25 cents to $1.00 per bag (excluding VAT). This does not apply to reusable bags.
In conclusion, plastic is a worldwide threat to sustainable tourism. The impact of plastic on tourism destinations is critical and is regarded as a genuine “epidemic”. In fragile environments like The Bahamas, the impacts plastics have on sea wildlife and the environment are undeniable. The modern responsible tourist of tomorrow (and increasingly more so today) will not want to visit a destination that is an eyesore due to plastic waste. As a small island nation, we cannot act as usual: talk, debate, ponder and do nothing to try counter the coming “environmental wars” that are already impacting our travel behavior. More and more countries across the globe have already started to walk the talk as far as controlling the use of single-use plastics and Styrofoam. Let us join this important initiative to abolish plastics from the Caribbean altogether.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and a professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.