Tracking down   
         Plastic in the  
            Caribbean

by Sandra Weiss

from

An island fights back

Nikita Johnson stands in front of a mountain of rubbish and sighs: broken bathing slippers, plastic bags, milk cartons, shards of rum bottles and scraps of textiles form a colourful mosaic. The carpet of rubbish completely covers the narrow sandy beach of the village of Pensacola on the Honduran Caribbean island of Roatán. "We just cleaned everything last weekend together with the local children," says Johnson. It is a Sysiphos job. The young woman from the environmental organisation Bica knows that there is no way to fight the ocean currents.

But it is not only the visible rubbish that troubles her. It is also microplastics, tiny particles smaller than five millimetres in diameter, and even smaller nanoplastics. The tiny particles can be seen more and more often during diving and snorkelling tours on the Mesoamerican coral reef. The second largest reef on earth after the one in Australia stretches from Mexico to Colombia and is a major tourist attraction for several countries.

The tiny particles can be seen more and more often during diving and snorkelling tours on the Mesoamerican coral reef.

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Battered paradise

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But the paradise is in trouble: corals are dying and bleaching due to climate change.

And on some days, snorkelling tours make their way through a surreally colourful glittering curtain.

It seems as if you are inside a snow globe. But this is not romantic, it is dramatic: the plastic ends up in the stomachs of fish, turtles and marine animals.

Between 19 and 23 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the sea every year, according to a study in the journal Science. 

Plastic takes between 20 and 600 years to decompose. Microplastics can damage human cells, a British meta-study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials in 2021 has found.

The UN therefore decided a few days ago - largely unnoticed by the rest of the world because of the Ukraine war - to start negotiations on a global agreement to combat plastic waste. Binding and comprehensive regulations to combat the "plastic epidemic" are to be in place by 2024.

Tracking down plastic waste

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For environmental organisations like Bica, this is a belated step on the right path. The Caribbean ecologists and marine researchers are far ahead of the international community. They have been studying plastic pollution in the oceans for over a decade. In Honduras, for example, they came up with a clever idea ten years ago: they followed the path of the waste.

It quickly led to Guatemala, to the villages along the 486-kilometre-long Motagua River. There, the waste collection system did not work. Therefore, the residents simply disposed of their waste in the river. The river flows into the Caribbean Sea near El Quetzalito in the Guatemalan-Honduran border region. The currents then regularly wash the waste onto the beaches of Omoa and in the south of Roatán. There must be a solution to this problem, the environmentalists believed.

The scientific expedition Plasticosfera, which took water samples at several locations between the mouth of the Motagua and Roatán in May 2021, discovered microplastics everywhere - much especially in the Punta de Manabique nature reserve.

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Activists built the first barrier

But the governments of both countries turned a deaf ear. Environmental protection was not an issue that risked diplomatic disagreements. It was local fishermen and activists from Guatemala who took action first. In 2016, they made a barrier out of tightly woven nets and old plastic bottles strung on strings, which they pulled across the estuary.

It was just a drop in the ocean. Only after sustained pressure from national and international environmentalists did Guatemala build a somewhat more professional barrier in January 2020.

But even that did not stop everything by a long shot. In the rainy season, it was regularly overwhelmed by the masses of water. In the summer of 2021, the mayor of Omoa, Ricardo Alvarado, declared that he had been mayor for ten years and was fed up.

"Hundreds of meetings and promises, and every year in the rainy season the phenomenon repeats itself." Alvarado announced an international lawsuit for environmental pollution against Guatemala. He threatened that he would be able to count on Costa Rica’s support.

While it was unclear which court he intended to go to, the announcement apparently startled Guatemala: A few weeks later, the Guatemalan Ministry of the Environment promised an "integral solution".

No placebos but corporate responsibility

For Nikita Johnson, it is clear what this solution should look like: "We need environmental education, waste prevention and corporate responsibility," she says. The scientific expedition Plasticosfera, which took water samples at several locations between the mouth of the Motagua and Roatán in May 2021, discovered microplastics everywhere - much especially in the Punta de Manabique nature reserve. "We recommend taxes on plastic packaging, a ban on single-use plastic and more responsibility on the part of manufacturers, rather than a focus on inefficient measures such as beach clean-ups and collection mechanisms," reads the final report.

Two years earlier, another expedition had collected litter on beaches, classified it and evaluated which brands were particularly prevalent. The names are published every year by the organisation "Break free from Plastic". The ranking changes only slightly from year to year. They are Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever, Danone, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive.

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Showdon with Coca-Cola

Not only Roatán's beaches were flooded with plastic waste - it also blocked the local sewage treatment plants that had been built in 2004 and 2012 thanks to international aid funds. "Empty bottles in particular, regularly clogged our drains and sewers," says Fernanda Lozana, head of Roatán's environmental department.

In 2019, the municipal council enacted a ban on disposable bottles and Styrofoam packaging. "We were the first municipality in Honduras to take such a step," Lozana says proudly. Thanks to Bica's educational work, the population accepted it quite well. "But then the local Coca Cola distributor objected."

The company argued that it could not recycle the glass bottles and refused to accept them.

"That's nonsense, of course. When I was a child, we also only had glass bottles and that was not a problem," Lozana says. "For a week, the glass bottles piled up on the island." But the combined pressure of the media, the population and environmentalists finally forced the local branch of the multinational company to give in. The tourism entrepreneurs are also happy about this. Since then, the roadside ditches of Roatán are the cleanest in the whole of Honduras. And thermos flasks - where the drinking water stays cold for a long time - are now standard equipment for the islanders.

Reforestation instead of dumping waste

Since it is best to prevent litter in the first place, Bica organises regular courses at local schools. The children also help to collect rubbish once a month, and thus learn mindfulness and respect for nature from an early age.

Another component of the educational programmes is the reforestation of the mangroves.

High school graduates can do their social internship at Bica.

Planting the little plants in deep mud under a glaring sun is backbreaking work.

But for 16-year-old Luis, the effort is worth it: "I know how important the mangroves are to protect our island from hurricanes and floods," he says. "That's why I like doing this. And later I can be proud that I helped to preserve our beautiful island of Roatán.

Another component of the educational programmes is the reforestation of the mangroves.

High school graduates can do their social internship at Bica.

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