How brands can help turn the tide of plastic pollution in the Caribbean
Our vision is to mainstream effective recycling across islands in the region and enable value-added processing of materials where it makes business sense – but we have been held back by many challenges. For businesses and brands selling in the Caribbean, this is an opportunity to be part of our mission and speak out about reducing plastic pollution and circularity.
Hot sun; sand beaches; and warm, turquoise waters. It’s what locals, as well as 32 million tourists a year, love Caribbean. But this pristine vision is marred by waste. Tons of that.
The statistics make it hard to read. The Caribbean imports over US$1.8 billion
in products packaged each year, and 10 of the top 30 per capita polluters of single-use plastics in the world are from Caribbean islands. The The Caribbean Sea
is considered the second most plastic contaminated space after the
Mediterranean Seawith plastic waste estimates ranging from 600 to 1,414 plastic items per square kilometer.
Most islands in the region have limited or no sorting and recycling facilities, meaning recycling rates range from 4-10%. This leads to overflowing landfills, illegally dumped or burned waste and trash that ends up in rivers and seas. The consequences are widespread – while plastic pollution in our oceans grabs headlines, it is also damaging the health of islands and the people who live there.
There are a number of reasons why the issue has not been addressed effectively. Established recyclers are undercapitalized; and many are trying to make ends meet in overly political, inefficient and sometimes corrupt waste sectors. They also struggle with low economies of scale, lack of investment in vital infrastructure and high shipping costs. At the government level, policy change is extremely slow and knowledge of recyclables management is limited.
But the larger truth is that many brands that tout their sustainability credentials continue to sidestep responsibility for thousands of tons of plastic going straight to Caribbean landfills. Solving the problem will take more than a few bottle return programs and the occasional ban on single-use plastics.
Establishing effective recycling systems is difficult
As a long-time investor in Caribbean commodity supply chains, we
Windward goods are eager to contribute to the solution. That’s why we founded Caribbean TREATMENTS in partnership with All the Caribbean
— a trader in recycled materials and a consulting firm. Our vision is to integrate efficient recycling in the islands of the region and enable value-added processing of materials where it makes business sense.
In practice, this means providing island-specific sorting and baling equipment and training people to use it, setting up education programs in businesses and schools, and deploying a waste technology solution to track and trace materials to end use. .
But we were held back by a number of challenges.
Investors are risk averse
We created a detailed regional plan, including feedback from recyclers, cruise liners, hotels, supermarkets and shipping companies on material volumes and challenges. We specified and sourced equipment, modeled (ever-increasing) shipping costs, and engaged solid waste management authorities. We were excited. But, despite interest from major development banks, there simply wasn’t enough hard data for them to move investments forward.
And even if that data existed, we were stuck. Everyone recognizes that something has to be done; but no one is willing to take risks in the sector without a major private sector investor to back the minimum loan ticket of over US$20 million demanded by the banks.
Local solutions are not always cost effective
We looked to obtain financing from companies that import and sell huge quantities of products in the region. They were interested in the potential for a profitable operation once it was proven in a pilot. But this interest did not extend to small islands.
Addressing regional challenges effectively requires local solutions, even when they are not commercially attractive. The only way to make this work is through regional investments, and that is not planned at the moment.
Subsidies are a chore
As a high-risk, high-impact opportunity with real potential, applying for funding was our next option. From experience, we know that this is an arduous and opaque process. It takes time and often involves considering complex academic information to satisfy key criteria that have limited practical or commercial value. In one case, we waited over five months to receive a one-line email. We’ve had some success here, but it’s a long process that doesn’t lend itself to agile action.
Urgency is often lacking
We managed to get support for equipment for a pilot project on a small island where there is no recycling. We drafted a contract with the local solid waste management authority and involved a great NGO to carry out sorting and recycling operations on the ground. But after seven months of trying to get the equipment working with the authority, the project stalled. We hope to get it back on track soon, but there is little urgency on the ground from the local government.
Brands can play their part
In the midst of difficulties, there is reason to be optimistic. The main lesson we have learned is that building strong relationships with the private sector is essential. We have started doing this locally, regionally and internationally.
For example, we work with an international hotel chain, whose management team is committed to action. It is a small step on the way to the huge changes needed in education, infrastructure and politics across the region; but one change is often the trigger for many others.
We have found that access to private sector support and independent funding accelerates change, in part because it bypasses local politics and bureaucracy. And once established, recycling facilities are visible and positive additions to communities. They build momentum by attracting business interest and sponsorship and can become centers of engagement and learning.
Where good recyclers exist, we can develop them. Where they don’t, businesses and partnerships can be formed. Solid waste management authorities in the region are keen to work with companies that bring money and experience, as they have little to spare. In return, they keep the flow of material coming, which is vital in an industry where margins are tight and volume is critical.
Despite the challenges, we don’t give up. CARE Caraïbes continues to work to set up simple recycling and sorting operations. But in a region where we often start from scratch, we need investment to make this happen quickly. For businesses and brands selling in the Caribbean, this is an opportunity to be part of our vital mission and speak out about reducing plastic pollution and circularity.