Belize's Plastic Plague
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Plastic pollution can’t be in remote places, right? Wrong! In the summer of 2016 I travelled to Belize on an educational marine biology trip. We spent time at several places, including 60 miles off the coast of mainland Belize, in the Turneffe Atoll, at the University of Belize’s Calabash Caye field station. The atoll is the largest of three atolls in the Belize Barrier Reef system. At 280 km, the barrier reef is the second longest in the world (Calabash Caye Field Station). To my astonishment, this remote island, despite only housing the field station, had significant plastic pollution on the beach ranging from micro plastics to flip-flops. While my final project for the trip was about marine symbiotic relationships, the issue of ubiquitous plastic pollution has stuck with me. Using photographs from my trip, I will reflect back more specifically on the plastic pollution I encountered. I will also address questions they have sparked to explore the issue on a national level.
Upon arrival I was immediately entranced by the beautiful blue water and sky, and the silky sand. My eyes were drawn to the beauty, and it was only once I started looking more closely at the sand, particularly the day we did a beach cleanup, that I noticed the plastic. For example, after having examined the photo above more closely, I noticed what looks like a piece of blue/green plastic in front and to the right of the log. It is important to note that I had to dig deep into my photographs of beautiful scenery and wildlife to find images with plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is hard to look at and capture in images. Failing to acknowledge its presence with the hope of painting a picture of the world and human consumption without problems, however, is naïve and extremely detrimental to the health of humans and the environment. As single-use plastic continues to be produced and used globally, and accumulates in places it should not, plastic pollution is becoming an increasingly urgent and difficult problem to solve. HUMANS CAN NO LONGER DENY THAT PLASTIC POLLUTION IS EVERYWHERE.
Below is the field station. The 5 acre island has a kitchen and dining room, lecture hall, living space for staff and visitors, a dorm, and two cabanas which can accommodate up to 36 people. Additionally, it has a small dry and wet lab and a shower house. The field station is powered by solar panels, a wind turbine, and backup generator. Additionally, the island has coconut trees, mature palm and littoral forest, as well as red, black, and white mangroves (Calabash Caye Field Station).
Plastic pollution is bad, but just how bad? Recent studies have concluded that plastics and/or microplastics are present in all levels of the food chain in oceans (Belize, Department of the Environment). The Department of the Environment of Belize’s 2017 assessment concluded that over a 3 year period, the country imported over 200 million single use plastic bags and 52 million pieces of styrofoam and plastic food containers. An additional 35 million single use plastic bags and 5 million pieces of styrofoam were locally produced and manufactured. On average, this equates to 11 plastic bags and 3 pieces of styrofoam per citizen per week per year (Belize, Department of the Environment).
Looking at the first image on the left, there is some fishing line, what looks like could be part of a sandal, many caps for plastic containers, and a significant number of plastic utensils. In the second image, there are many plastic bags/wraps and bottles (plastic and glass). Since these images are only from one location, I asked Celia Mahung, the executive director of the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), a conservation organization located in southern Belize, which types of plastic in her experience are most popular. In addition, I inquired about single-use plastic’s role in society, as well as the public’s general sentiment surrounding plastic pollution. Celia explained that many people rely on plastic because biodegradable products are a lot more expensive. Styrofoam is possibly Belize’s biggest problem. Despite this, people’s opinions are changing rapidly, and younger populations are more aware of the issues. She notices more people re-filling their own water bottles, and bringing their containers to stores and restaurants. Additionally, an increasing number of people are willing to come out and participate in beach cleanups.
I was also interested in where the plastic comes from. After some research, I found out that in 2018, the UN Environment estimated that 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans throughout the world each year (Belize, Department of the Environment). In Belize there are three predominant ways plastic makes it to the ocean. If plastic is not recycled, it ends up in the landfill. Often on the way some of it is blown away, gathers in drains, or meets the ocean via the drainage system. Littering is another cause; rainwater and wind carry littered plastic into streams and rivers, in addition to travel through drains. Lastly, many products are deposited in drains via toilets (wipes, cotton swabs, sanitary products, etc.) (Eldridge, Mary). Other ways include open dumping, open burning and improperly managed disposal sites (The World Bank). Celia explained that the garbage collection process is very disjointed; in some villages there are no disposal systems in place, forcing people to bury their garbage, negatively impacting groundwater. In major towns people bag their garbage, and trucks transport it to the dump site. While garbage is starting to be divided, it is not a universally established practice yet. The government is still figuring out how to ask people to divide their garbage “because we don’t have any recycling plans or companies… If you divide your garbage now it still goes to the same place, and that needs to be sorted out.” This is also explained very well in pages 57-60 of Megan Shaw’s project report. Celia personally re-uses bottles and has a compost pile in her yard. Much of the plastic consumed is imported from Guatemala and Mexico; however, some plastic, particularly packing for plantain chips and soft drinks, is manufactured in Belize.
Since I took these pictures in 2016, I was wondering how the degree of plastic pollution has changed over time. Celia’s personal experience shows that plastic pollution has worsened over the years: “When I was a kid, we didn’t have as many plastics, I don’t remember using a plastic bag, or drinking water from a plastic water bottle. We were able to do well without plastics. It’s a matter of getting back to the basics.” The worsening of plastic pollution is difficult to show with research due to a lack of data to make comparisons over the years, and the existing data varies. A 2017 World Bank report titled Marine Pollution in the Caribbean: Not a Minute to Waste, has evidence that plastic pollution is an enormous problem. It states that within a 48 km of coastline surveyed in Belize, there were 1,914 items per kilometer (what they characterize as “liter concentration). Additional statistics can be found in the image from the report below (World Bank Group). Another report states the waste collection rate in the city of San Pedro, Belize, as 58% and 66% for Belize City (World Bank Group). More research, with common variables and scales of locations, would help demonstrate the scale of the problem.
We know plastic is bad for the environment, but how exactly? Since the wildlife I encountered was not visibly impacted by plastic pollution, I was curious to learn more about plastic’s negative impacts. First, it can take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose (The World Bank). Ultraviolet light from the sun causes plastic to break down into microplastics, which are almost impossible to clean up. Plastic pollution can cause floods by clogging drains, leads to respiratory problems when burned, negatively impacts animals’ health, and contaminates water (The World Bank). It has been predicted that if nothing is done, the oceans will have more plastic, by weight, than fish by 2050 (The World Bank). Other issues include entanglement, transfer of chemicals, smothering, etc. (Swedish Institute for the Marine Environment).
Curious to see a perspective of someone living and working in the environmental field in Belize, I turned to Celia. She described a study conducted at a nearby dump site which found nitrates and phosphates in a nearby river. “Luckily we don’t have people who live very near to that area, but that water still empties out in our marine reserve where people rely on fresh fish. Indirectly, people are impacted by what happens at the dump site.” She continued: “I have never personally seen fish eating plastics, except once I saw a turtle nibbling on plastic.” She also said that there is not a lot of plastic in their marine area, but if people do see garbage, they will pick it up. Despite this, there is an invisible threat to marine life from micro plastics, “We don’t even see what happens with that because it’s so tiny.” Additionally, she recently went to an area near the reef near the Motagua River, which borders Guatemala and Honduras. She described the floating garbage she saw as “an ugly site.”
What is being done about this problem? It is expected that if the current rate of waste generation continues, the landfill will be at maximum capacity by 2063, and if it increases drastically, it could be filled by 2050 (San Pedro Sun). As a result, it will be crucial to limit waste (San Pedro Sun). Attempts are already being made. On March 20th, 2018, the government of Belize announced their intention to phase-out single use plastics and styrofoam by April 22, 2019 (Belize, Department of the Environment). On July 10th, 2018, the government approved the Implementation Strategy and Action Plan to Phase-Out Plastics and Styrofoam, Transition to Green Products, and Promote Recycling, which is being implemented by the Plastics and Styrofoam Task Force. Their goals, stated on the government's website, are to “Reduce and Prohibit Single Use Plastic,” attain “Better data on single use plastic,” and “Promote green products (transition),”(Belize, Department of the Environment). While this is a great start, it is important to recognize the possible problems of implementation; importers of styrofoam and plastic containers are politically connected and it is unclear whether biodegradable products will have the same relationship (San Pedro Sun). The cost and convenience of plastic is also very appealing, and one of TIDE’s biggest challenges has convincing stakeholders to use biodegradable products; “Sometimes, no matter what they hear, because of the cost, they will stick with plastic” and are “thinking about today and not tomorrow.”
In June 2019, the Commonwealth Litter Programme (CliP) and the Department of Environment (DOE) conducted a survey “to measure the size and volume of the plastic litter problem” to help guide the National Waste Management Policy. The survey found a need to “increase and strengthen the collection of data and to enforce waste management laws.” (San Pedro Sun).
Celia told me a lot about TIDE, which was formed in 1997 by a group of concerned citizens in response to manatee poaching in the area to advocate for the establishment of a marine reserve. By 2005, with the assistance of the government and community members, the Port Honduras Marine Reserve was declared. TIDE also advocated for the protection of land nearby to become Payne’s Creek National Park. They work towards resource protection, education (with an emphasis on schoolchildren), and outreach, as well as fundraising for community development projects for resource users to minimize pressure on the protected areas. They also conduct research, mainly focusing on marine areas, including ongoing research on commercial species to inform the management of the marine reserve. They also have a tour operating company, bringing students to Belize to conduct research. For plastic pollution, they focus on education and outreach by organizing regular beach cleanups, and a summer camp for kids with different themes each year (the past two or three years it was plastic pollution). Their most recent project was an innovation contest to see who could most effectively and creatively reuse plastics; for children it was an art competition, and adults it was entrepreneurship.
When asked about other noteworthy efforts, Celia mentioned the Department of Environment’s five year plan, developed late last year, to address plastic pollution in Belize: “Once we follow that plan we should be on the right track,” she added. She also elaborated on the laws banning single use plastic as they relate to businesses. This year, stores are not allowed to import any new plastic or styrofoam, and by next year they will not be allowed to sell it. This provides time for them to get rid of what they have. She also described a “huge setback in messaging” due to COVID-19: “You heard town leaders telling the market vendors, package your stuff! So I noticed people went back to putting stuff in plastics, weighing them, having them already packaged off to avoid contamination, so that did not help at all… Also with the promotion of single-use masks, can you imagine where all those masks will go?” Locally, there has been promotion of cloth masks.
During my research I came across other efforts and organizations, including Plastic Free Belize the Blue Habits Program.
I was also curious to see what Celia predicts plastic pollution will look like in 20 years. “If we are to continue using plastics, our dumpsites will be mountains. I think we have helped to create that awareness, so in 20 years people will be taking their market bags to the market, and will go back to the basics. There may be a wider variety of reusable containers, and the population will be a lot more caring of their environment because, more so with COVID, we’re seeing the need for our natural resources. The world has crashed, so we need to rely on helping ourselves, on nature, if we are to live comfortably and have the necessary food that we need to survive. I think COVID will also help us to realize ‘you know what, we must take care of this environment that will feed us now, and more so in the future'. So in 20 years I am hopeful that there will be less plastic in Belize.” She also emphasized how there are many groups in addition to the government who are working to create awareness and eliminate plastic, and that education is key. “I’ve seen a lot of change as a result of education. When people understand what they’re doing, and what impacts their actions have on the environment, that helps them change their behavior.”
It will take the government, non-governmental organizations, the citizens and any visitors of Belize to work together to be mindful of consumption and waste accumulation, reduce these processes, and ensure waste is disposed in ways least harmful to the environment. If they don’t, human health will diminish and we will lose many of the species that are already threatened by pollution. They are not gone YET, but we must look forward to protect them! Additionally, Belize will share its experiences, approaches, draft legislation, policy, and methods with sister countries, serving as a model for the rest of the world (San Pedro Sun).