Plastic, the miracle material invented 112 years ago, has morphed into the scourge of the modern era. Reports abound about tons of plastic debris washed up on shores, swirling about in oceans and rivers and found inside the bodies of fish.

Efforts are under way worldwide to halt the widespread use of items made from plastic and to clean up the seemingly never-ending deposits of plastic bottles, cups, bags and packaging material. A notable all-volunteer effort to fight this scourge is in force in the Cayman Islands, its team passionate about reducing single-use plastic and raising awareness.

“Plastic pollution is a huge threat to the health of our oceans and to all of us,” said Claire Hughes, founder of Plastic Free Cayman, which started as a grass-roots movement in 2017 and last year became a nonprofit organization. “We’ve all got to work together – individuals, businesses and governments to make changes and to make them soon.”

Plastic Free Cayman’s volunteers not only host monthly beach cleanups, they also have a bottle cap drive and a new recycled item called Eco Bricks, a plastic-free school initiative in conjunction with the National Trust for the Cayman Islands. They monitor the islands’ only trash-collecting seabin, located at the Cayman Islands Yacht Club.

“We are collecting plastic bottle caps for art murals, and we have just introduced the Eco Bricks, which are plastic bottles packed with softer plastics,” said Hughes.

“Currently, plastics type 1 and type 2 are shipped off to be recycled – but this is problematic with only 9 percent of U.S. plastic actually truly recycled,” she said. “But softer plastics such as chip packets, packaging, yoghurt pots, bread bags, etc., cannot be recycled and simply end up on our pile of trash at Mount Trashmore [the landfill in Grand Cayman]. By packing them into the Eco Bricks, these ‘bricks’ can then be made into things such as stools and tables, and, in some countries, they actually build with them.”

It’s not an ideal solution, she noted, “but it’s one that can work whilst we are waiting for larger corporations to change their packaging to something more sustainable.”

Volunteers with Plastic Free Cayman host monthly beach cleanups.

On the business end

In addition to its recycling and cleanup efforts, Plastic Free Cayman concentrates part of its efforts toward stemming the use of plastic products. It promotes its ‘345 Pledge’ as a guide for local businesses “to live a plastic-free life”. The pledge includes a checklist of three things they can choose to do now, four things they will do in six months, and five things they will do a year from now. There is a similar checklist for individuals who take the pledge.

“We’ve had a good response from businesses but would love more to take it,” Hughes said. “It’s possible businesses are already using less single-use plastic, which we commend. We often get messages from visitors to the island [about] where they can go eat and we will always recommend those establishments that have taken the pledge.”

The pledge’s checklist for businesses includes such options as not automatically handing out plastic bags, straws or cutlery, allowing customers to bring their own takeaway containers, and using reusable cups instead of single-use plastic cups.

Hughes noted that some local stores have taken the pledge and no longer hand out plastic bags, while others charge 5 cents per plastic bag. But in Hughes’ plastic-free world, “… we’d like to see businesses simply not supply them. This would encourage a healthy ‘reuse’ mentality. We’ve managed in the past without plastic bags, and we can again.”

Individuals make a difference

Meanwhile, the response from individuals has been “awesome”, she said.

“Every day we get individuals taking the pledge, ranging from just three things to all 10 on the list. Going plastic-free is a journey and not everyone can ditch everything right away. It’s about getting into new habits, and that takes a little time.”

But, she emphasised, “Everyone can start with three things, add a fourth in six months and a fifth in a year.”

In an email, Hughes recounts her own journey of discovery about the blight of plastics: “I watched ‘A Plastic Ocean’ on Netflix (highly recommended) with my two children, and my daughter was in tears seeing the animals dying from ingesting plastic. I had no idea plastic was causing such problems and no idea it leached chemicals into our bodies that disrupt our hormones. I also learned that plastic doesn’t just go away; it breaks apart, not down.

“Another fact I learned was that our ocean produces over 70 percent of our oxygen, so a healthy ocean is vital.”

Since arriving in Cayman as a diving instructor in 2002, Hughes has seen plastic washing up on Grand Cayman’s beaches more and more. “My children are growing up thinking it’s normal to see plastic on the beach and this angered me,” she said. “So as a mother, a teacher, a diver and a sailor, I wanted to do something. Think global, act local.”