The Caribbean has a plastic pollution problem. But, reports Karen McDonald Gayle, community groups have been leading the way to ensure we can continue to enjoy our beautiful bodies of water
From rainforest to reef, the Caribbean has a level of biodiversity that defines the region’s history, culture and heritage — and which we often take for granted. The ocean has shaped generations of Caribbean communities, as well as our economies through “blue” sectors like fisheries and tourism.
Caribbean people’s close relationship with the oceans and our natural environment is manifested in our continued interest and ambition around conservation and sustainable development. In 2008, for example, there was the Caribbean Challenge Initiative (CCI) that saw Caribbean nations reaching beyond the global target of protecting 20% of marine protected areas by 2020.
In addition to moving the needle on marine management in the region, this drive led to the establishment of the Caribbean Biodiversity Fund (CBF), which now invests over US$175 million in conservation and sustainable development across the Caribbean.
When global interests arose around a similar target that would protect 30% of all natural areas globally by 2030, Caribbean leaders were among the first to pledge their support. This new “30 by 30 goal” provides an opportunity for the region to build on the achievements of the CCI, and once again work together on conservation targets.
Several of these targets begin to acknowledge the inextricable link between land and the previously undervalued ocean. We may be small islands, but we are large ocean states! Of the 24 Caribbean islands that I checked, their marine space is between 68% and 99% of their economic area (their “Exclusive Economic Zone”). So our connection to the ocean is undeniable.
I am excited by the rapidly developing blue economy focus that holds great opportunities for development and GDP growth in our island nations. It will lead to more accurate accounting for our significant ocean spaces. As with all development opportunities, the key will be balance — economic development is only sustainable with effective terrestrial and marine preservation, conservation and management.
Reducing ocean waste and plastics
A 2019 United Nations Environmental Programme report characterised the Caribbean Sea as the second most polluted in the world, after the Mediterranean. Our shorelines have up to 2,000 waste items per kilometre, 80% of which are macro and microplastics that come from inadequate waste infrastructure and abandoned fishing equipment. Directly linked to deteriorating environments and biodiversity loss, this is an issue that affects far more than local fauna and flora.
Luckily, Caribbean countries are answering the call. At least seven Caribbean nations have banned single-use plastics since 2020. Plastic bottle buybacks in Jamaica are changing the “throw out” mentality and rapidly expanding plastic bottle recycling centres. And Antigua & Barbuda is moving towards banning microbeads and styrofoam. The region is fighting back against plastic and ocean waste.
With support from the German Development Bank through KfW, the CBF will be playing its part through the Advancing Circular Economy (ACE) Facility. It will finance around 20 projects that aim to minimise marine litter in the Caribbean.
Luckily, Caribbean countries are answering the call. At least seven Caribbean nations have banned single-use plastics since 2020
Circular economy ideas are based on those “5Rs” we all know about: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose, and Refuse. At every stage of production, the 5Rs need to be infused into the process. This will greatly reduce the amount of waste entering the marine environment.
As with all CBF projects, the aim is to create beyond-project solutions that consider long-term results, including sustainable funding for reducing marine litter in the region.
In just my lifetime, the beaches of the Caribbean have changed. As a Jamaican, my generation was the last to swim the “Cross-the-Harbour” race in which friends braver than me swam across the Kingston Harbour.
Why was the race stopped? Because the harbour was too polluted. The fact that the water got so bad that divers now need a full wetsuit even in our tropical climate is what we want to find solutions for.
This is not just for us now but, as the Sustainable Development Goals and many wise Indigenous populations tell us, it is for seven generations down the line. For them to have — and hopefully swim in — the harbour like us, and play cricket or dandy shandy on the beaches like we did.
Karen McDonald Gayle is the CEO of the Caribbean Biodiversity Fund (CBF) — a regional umbrella environmental fund established in 2012 to create reliable, long-term funding for conservation and sustainable development in the Caribbean region. www.caribbeanbiodiversityfund.org
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