St. Maarten’s Day is my favorite Holiday. It is a day on which I reflect on what it means to be a St. Maartener and how I can be a better citizen of my amazing country. It is also a day where I am on a singular mission to gorge myself on the food and drink that makes our island unique. But, unfortunately, I can’t do so in good conscience without using my own plate and cup and knife and fork. For Sint Maarten, our Pearl in the Caribbean Sea has a major plastic problem: everything our food is served in is made out of single-use plastics.
We have significantly lagged behind in taking concrete steps to ban single-use plastics. As an island nation, we must go the way other Caribbean countries and territories have, including Jamaica, Dominica, and soon Anguilla, in banning single-use plastic products. Whilst I can appreciate the steps taken in the right direction by Parliament, it might already be too little too late. If we don’t act urgently, St. Maarten will again lag behind the region in terms of addressing a sustainability issue, much like we are lagging behind in moving towards renewable energy.
But it is also up to us to force change, which, I’m afraid, is easier said than done. This despite us trying to push our society in that direction with the Reduce Reuse Program. A clear example of this is when I posted on social media my disappointment in the St. Maarten Carnival Development Foundation for them still allowing a balloon jump-up anno 2019. I was met with condemnation and criticism, berating me for not “approaching the SCDF with alternatives instead of criticizing,” as if the SCDF has been living under a rock instead of on top of one, ignorant to the global and regional response to the damages that single-use plastics, especially balloons, cause to the ecosystems and wildlife that makes St. Maarten unique. The balloon industry is the only one that encourages consumers to litter with its product. The Ocean Conservancy, the well-respected global ocean conservation organization, ranks balloons as the third deadliest form of marine litter after ghost-nets and single-use plastic bags. However, the SCDF is not the only organization to blame; everywhere on our still beautiful island we clean up balloons that were released during parties or events littering our coasts and wetlands, plastic bags choking wild flora and fauna, and cigarette butts and straws competing with the very sand our beaches are famous for. This goes to show that the mindset of our people needs to change; we need to hold ourselves and our actions accountable just as much as we need to hold government and businesses accountable. As the cliché goes, we have to ‘be the change we want to see in the world’. But that does not mean that our Government and Parliament shouldn’t take the lead, as they should, in enacting the change our country so desperately needs. And after what we have been through and are still going through, not only needs but deserves.
It is curious to see how the use of plastics is so ingrained in our community. When I go for takeout I take my reusable containers with me. The reactions I get range from disbelief, incomprehension, humor, and resignation. I am often met with blank, vacant looks when I mention that the same styrofoam container that we discarded is fuel to the continuously blazing fire at the landfill. Plastic is, after all, a petroleum product, much like the gas in your car. It is also curious, given our societal and cultural norms, that BPA, or Bisphenol A, the dominant chemical in single-use plastics such as styrofoam food containers and plastic bottles, can have negative reproductive health effects, especially in men. BPAs are endocrine disruptors that can cause impotency and prostate cancer in men and reproductive hormone issues in women. This chemical is now being found in the fish we eat, transferred into our bodies through ingested microplastics.
Recycling, unfortunately, is not the solution, especially for a Small Island Developing State such as St. Maarten. A state that is already struggling with solid waste management issues and the way we approach our garbage problem. Sint Maarten, per capita, produces nine times more garbage than any other country in the Caribbean. Given our susceptibility to climate change events (read Irma) and our limited land space, given the personal interests often involved in the garbage management industry, and given our track record in managing solid waste, a ban is the only solution to curb the impact of plastics. Although in lieu of a ban, recycling can make a small difference, and the work being done by businesses and organizations that encourage recycling should certainly be recognized and highlighted, recycling is just a band-aid. It is the grownup version of squeezing one’s eyes shut and covering one’s ears and screaming lalalalalala so as to ignore reality. It is an “easy cop-out for cowardly governments,” according to an article from the independant.co.uk. 80% of all plastic can’t be recycled and 100% can’t be recycled indefinitely. Eventually plastic will remain in our environment, causing the human and environmental health effects I mentioned earlier. Recycling itself depends heavily on global markets and global environmental policy, markets and policies that are susceptible to the volatile nature of global politics and the global market. Politics that go way beyond our Sweet St. Maarten Land’s ability to navigate successfully. That is why governments in fellow Caribbean countries and territories are putting the future of their islands and their people above a temporary convenience. We should not have a Sint Maarten’s Day where our crab-backs, chicken-leg and johnny-cakes, pigtail soups and guavaberry punches are served in single-use plastic containers; celebrating our sweet country while simultaneously defiling her. We need to ban single-use plastics. Now!
Tadzio Bervoets is the Manager of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation, a conservation NGO on Sint Maarten. He is also the Vice-chair of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance and the winner of the 2016 McFarlane Award for Conservation Leadership in the Insular Caribbean