“Plastic bags are killing our natural environment”

All of Cayman’s supermarkets have agreed to discontinue the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags from June and will encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags, reports business journalist Michael Klein.

As the most widely used consumer item, plastic bags have become a huge burden on the environment worldwide. In Cayman, where “Mount Trashmore” has been steadily growing without any recognisable strategy to reduce or eliminate solid waste, non-biodegradable plastic bags have noticeably contributed to an increasing garbage problem.
 
“The facts and figures speak for themselves in that we are all playing our part in killing our natural environment,” says Woody Foster, managing director of Fosters Food Fair IGA.
 
“No one really thinks about the few bags that are in their possession when they go shopping, but when you add them all up over the year, over 12 million bags goes a long way in killing the environment that we love so much.”
 
For this reason, all of Cayman’s supermarkets, including Fosters, Kirk and Hurley’s, have agreed in a concerted effort to discontinue the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags. The move will see the introduction of a fee of 5 cents for each of the biodegradable bags that will replace them. At the same time supermarkets will encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags.
 
These types of solid bags made from recyclable material will reduce the amount of waste that otherwise would go straight to the landfill.
 
“While the number of plastic bags that end up in the land fill every year seems like a lot, it really is a small portion of the amount of garbage that is dumped. However, we have to continue to reduce our waste and this is one important step to that end,” says Foster.
 
The elimination of plastic bags in supermarkets has been spearheaded by the Corporate Green Team Network, an initiative started by the Department of Environment and Deloitte, which now features 15 Cayman businesses and organisations.
 
The Network was at first concerned with what businesses can do to become more energy-efficient and reduce or recycle waste in an office environment, based on a series of guides produced by the Department of Environment’s Sustainability Unit.
 
“When the group of businesses came together, it became immediately clear that they were already doing a lot of the things that we are talking about in our first guide on energy efficiency,” says Gina Ebanks-Petrie, the director of the Department of Environment. All network members were very keen to move beyond the concept of energy efficiency and “waste was at the top of the list of the concerns of everybody”, she says.
 
The network settled on one of the most obvious contributors to the increase in garbage, the use of plastic bags, and approached the supermarkets with a plan to introduce alternatives.
 
“The reaction of the supermarkets has been really good. It showed that this was actually something that they had been thinking about for some time,” says DoE Sustainable Development Officer Sophie Halford.
 
“They were just keen to get rid of the plastic.” Not only are plastic bags a cost for the supermarkets as a line item, more importantly they were also concerned over the environmental impact, as the supermarkets were aware of the numbers for some time, she says. “It is over a million bags a month, which is crazy when you think about it.”
 
Fosters, Hurley’s and Kirk decided to put their usual competition aside and collaborate on the issue with a marketing effort that will span all three supermarkets. The operators also contemplate to jointly train their staff to prepare them on how to inform customers of the impending change.
 
“[We] fully support the Corporate Green Team initiative as we definitely see the need to reduce the amount of plastic bags in order to improve the environment of the Cayman Islands,” Thom Guyton and Charles Jury of Kirk Supermarkets said in a statement.
 
“In collaboration with the other supermarkets, we look forward to doing our part to educate the public on the use of reusable bags so that we can better the community and work towards a cleaner and greener future.”
 
From EarthWeek in April onwards the supermarkets and the Corporate Green Team Network will start to inform shoppers in a campaign that will be the same across all stores and include signs, T-shirts and information in the press. 
 
The Network has built a website www.caymanbecome.ky that addresses a lot of the questions, why the initiative was started, why plastic bags are bad for the environment and why reusable bags are the best alternative. The website, which has been donated by Brac Informatics, will function as a “clearing house for all of the information: what the network is, how we came about, what the campaign is, what we are trying to do and how this is going to happen,” says Halford.
 
On the go live date on 9 June promotional events will take place in all supermarket stores and the initiative will hand out free reusable bags to shoppers.
 
In all supermarkets reusable bags are already available and will continue to be sold. Currently, the supermarkets are replacing their old stock of plastic bags with new oxo-biodegradable bags. These plastic bags contain an additive and as a result don’t need anaerobic conditions to break down, which would be hard to come by here, especially in the land fill, explains Halford.
 
Instead they degrade on exposure to light and heat.
 
Determining the charge for these plastic bags was difficult for the supermarkets. They have settled for a small fee of 5 cents, to take account of the current economic environment, in which people are feeling the pinch, not least after an increase in customs duties at the beginning of the year.
 
Still, supermarkets are not really getting any upside from this charge, because they are not making any profit on this, says DMS’ Tara Tvedt-Pearson, who is the project coordinator for the Green Team Network. Ultimately, the objective is not to charge for plastic bags, even if they are bio-degradable, but to promote and encourage the use of reusable bags to avoid having to throw bags away altogether.
 
By taking reusable shopping bags to the supermarket it will be possible to save on average 6 plastic bags per week, 24 bags a month and 288 plastic bags a year. As a result millions of bags would not be added to Cayman’s garbage mountain each year. The initiative will advise customers to keep an eye on how many plastic bags they use each week and keep reusable bags in their cars.
 
Positive reward incentives may also be considered by supermarkets for the use of reusable bags in the future.
 
Getting used to this change will take time. The supermarkets aim to eliminate all plastic bags, including bio-degradable ones, within a year.
 
There is no regulatory framework that would dictate this, says Ebanks-Petrie, underlining the voluntary commitment of the supermarkets. 
 
“It will take time for people to switch from plastic to reusable, but at least in the meantime what goes into the landfill will not be as environmentally harmful,” says Halford.
 
Another reason that plastic bags are not phased out straight away is also that the message needs to get out to tourists.  The Department of Tourism, which is a member of the Green Team Network, will need to inform tourists to either come prepared to invest 99 cents in a reusable shopping bag or to bring their own, says Ebanks-Petrie. “Many tourists are already used to doing this anyway.”
 
It is clear that plastic bags can only be a first, but important, step to change attitudes across Cayman, but other measures will only be a matter of time. “The supermarkets are also looking at other green initiatives, saying how can we look at plastic bags and not think about Styrofoam, fruit bags and other things,” says Tvedt-Pearson. “So it kind of got them thinking.”
 
Ultimately, plastic bags are not only a problem for the land fill along Easterly Tibbetts Highway. Even biodegradable plastic often finds its way into the sea. Although this type of plastic will not take hundreds of years to break down, unlike regular plastics, it pollutes the seas and kills marine life, in particular turtles.
 
Tim Ecott from the Central Caribbean Marine Institute says, “The world’s oceans are connected. We know that things that are thrown in the sea can end up almost anywhere else in the world. A plastic cup or an old rubber shoe can be thrown into the sea in California and easily end up in Japan or even Australia. According to Greenpeace, the Pacific trash patches contain six times more plastic than plankton in dry weight of biomass.”
 
The answer to this, according to Carrine Manfrino, who together with Ecott co-authored the Institute’s forthcoming Green Guide ‘Sustaining our oceans and islands’ lies in simple things everyone can do on a daily basis. “Living sustainably in an island community is not always easy. But reducing our impact on our planet means taking a look at many of the simple everyday actions we take for granted, such as the use of plastic bags and plastic packaging,” she says.

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Garbage before it is covered by marl, used to control odor and pests.

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