From the remote Galápagos Islands to the humid depths of the Amazon, governments are cutting back on plastic, citizens are cleaning beaches, and innovators are seeking alternative products as part of a region-wide movement to turn the tide on plastic pollution.
Awareness of the need to act is growing in a region that is particularly vulnerable to marine litter and to other environmental threats caused by our changing climate, such as increasingly powerful storms. In 2020, 3.7 million tonnes of plastic pollution entered the ocean from countries in the Latin America and the Caribbean Region (LAC).
Right now, 27 of the 33 countries in the LAC region have passed national or local laws for the reduction, prohibition, or elimination of single-use plastics. Yet, much more needs to be done. Plastic represents about 10-12 per cent of municipal solid waste, and the rates of recycling and waste recovery are typically less than 10 per cent in the region’s countries.
So, what are countries in the region doing to tackle plastic pollution?
Antigua and Barbuda
In 2016 Antigua and Barbuda became the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to ban plastic bags.
In 2019 Argentina passed a resolution that established national guidelines to address the issue of plastics and their impact on bodies of water and the environment with a life cycle approach that covers the aspects of production, use, waste management, and pollution reduction. In 2020, a law was adopted that prohibits the production, import, and marketing of cosmetic and personal hygiene products that contain plastic microbeads intentionally added for exfoliation, including lotions, makeup products, toothpaste, nail polish, and soap, among other products.
Belize, renowned for the second largest barrier reef in the world, pledged to ban single-use plastic items, such as cutlery, bags and straws, as well as Styrofoam by April 2019. The ban was finally put in place in March 2022, although questions remain over its enforcement.
Brazil has had a National Plan to Combat Waste in the Sea since 2019, which however, hasnot yet been implemented. Two decrees related to waste were published earlier this year, one re-establishing a Program to support waste pickers and another to reorganize the reverse logistics and recycling credits system. Although Brazil still doesn´t have a country-wide ban in place, some key governments, such as the State of Rio de Janeiro and the City of São Paulo are taking action and have adopted local bans on bags, straws, and other single-use plastic products. The City of São Paulo is also a signatory to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.
The country was the first in South America to ban the use of plastic bags in 2018. The Single-Use Plastics Law entered into force in 2021, regulating the use of single-use plastics in food establishments, which are prohibited from handing out straws, stirrers or chopsticks.
The National Plan for the Sustainable Management of Single-Use Plastics aims to ensure that 100 per cent of single-use plastics placed on the market are reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2030. In 2022, the country approved a bill to ban 14 types of plastic, including plastic bags, straws and fruit and vegetable packaging.
Costa Rica introduced its National Marine Waste Plan 2021 – 2030 in 2021, which seeks to reduce land-based waste streams that reach the sea, including plastics, in collaboration with organizations and communities.
Ecuador is transforming the Galápagos Islands into a plastic-free archipelago, and phased out plastic bags, straws, polythene take-out containers and bottles in 2018.
The country is using bio-fences – made from recovered plastic debris – to collect plastic waste from rivers, allowing communities to collect and recycle it. The fences stretch from across the river and prevent plastic pollution from flowing into the sea. Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Panama have also introduced bio-fences.
31 of the country’s 32 states have established bans and restrictions on different single-use products, including disposable plastic bags and straws and products made with expanded polystyrene, as well as on microplastics added to personal care products. 13 states and 21 municipalities are part of the Global Clean Seas campaign. The Mexican government is developing a National Action Plan on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution driven by science-based policy and is developing its first National Inventory of Sources of Plastic Pollution, as a foundation for the Plan. In addition, Mexico City reinforced its commitment to eliminate plastic pollution by becoming the first megalopolis in the region to join the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, setting a baseline of action regarding plastic waste, while strengthening innovation and moving towards promoting a circular economy.
Panama banned plastic bags in 2019 and also launched the Panama National Marine Litter Action Plan 2022 – 2027. It seeks to eliminate the generation of marine litter, which threatens biodiversity and coastal and marine ecosystems, by involving and uniting the efforts of as many national stakeholders as possible.
In 2020, Panama regulated the reduction and progressive replacement of single-use plastics with sustainable alternatives made of reusable, recyclable, biodegradable or compostable materials, which generate a lower impact on the environment and health. In 2021, eleven plastic products were banned, including disposable plates, bags, laundry covers and egg packaging.
In 2022, Saint Lucia developed a National Source Inventory on Plastic Pollution and Marine Litter. This inventory includes statistics and databases of life cycles and streams of plastic and other products and will allow the country to establish a basis for taking strategic action. In 2019, the country banned the importation of single-use plastic and Styrofoam, and in 2021 banned businesses from manufacturing, distributing or selling the prohibited items.
Uruguay launched the “Challenge: Free of single-use plastics,” in 2022, which is a voluntary program that promotes the reduction of plastic waste generation – particularly plastic waste with a short lifespan and easy substitution options – in areas such as retail, tourism and trade. The country also passed a law which states that manufacturers, bottlers and importers of non-alcoholic beverages, who sell their products in plastic containers, may only do so – from January 2025 – in containers that contain at least 40 per cent by weight of recycled material.