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Beauty and the Beast: Our Love For Plastic Has a Dark Side

By 3p Contributor

By Kelsey Gaude

I recently had the amazing opportunity to travel to blue, beautiful Belize for the first time: a country known for the Munda Maya ruins, the incredible Great Blue Hole and the World Heritage barrier reef system.

I attended Oceana’s Reef Day, which was an educational event for Belizean youth that was supported by organizations that serve and protect the reef. During the event I spoke with Rubi, a Belizean student studying marine biology at the University of Belize. We discussed the unique cultures of Belize and the fantastic Marie Sharps hot sauce. But then our conversation quickly turned to the darker side of beautiful Belize: solid waste management.

Waste management in Belize

Belize produces approximately 200,000 tons of waste annually, which is roughly two to three pounds of waste per person, per day. This is a relatively low per-capita rate, but the systems in place to manage Belize’s waste are flawed -- and this is causing serious environmental and human health issues.

Trash pickup is costly and with a 14.4 percent unemployment rate for Belizeans, this is not a viable solution. Therefore, most waste is tossed onto the sides of highways; when exposed to the elements, it is dispersed everywhere. When the waste is collected, it is incinerated, which is detrimental to environmental and human health.

"This isn't just our issue"

Given the economic constraints, it is difficult to point a disappointed finger at Belize. The U.S. has the infrastructure and funding for waste management, and still our systems of waste management are far from ideal. For instance, only 8 percent of plastic is recycled in the states. When we don't recycle our waste and put it back into the market, it ends up at the landfill. Or does it?

Rubi relayed a sobering reminder: “You know, this isn’t just our issue … Do you know how many Forever 21 bags I have found on our coast? This isn’t coming from us in Central America; it’s coming from you. We don’t have Forever 21.”

While the problem is not the result of Americans deliberately dropping plastic bags into our oceans, unfortunately, this is what happens to a lot of displaced waste. The trash finds its way into earth’s dynamic systems and ends up in ocean gyres or on foreign coasts.

Plastic is E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E, and this is just one side of its darker story. BPA is an industrial chemical that is utilized as an abundant plastic source, and the CDC’s research shows that 93 percent of Americans over the age of 6 have tested positive for BPA in their systems. This is a big deal because studies have concluded that BPA may impair brain function, cause high blood pressure, impact the endocrine system (gland system), and lead to serious disorders such as infertility, cancer, asthma, trans-generational effects, as well as resistance to chemotherapy. There is increased spending on research to better understand the impact on a human’s health with exposure to BPA and other industrial chemicals used in other polycarbonate plastics.

Solutions to the plastic crisis

It's clearly a problem when waste is not disposed of correctly. So, what are the solutions? In Belize, NGOs are partnering with waste-management firms to advance an economical and self-sustaining recycling network. For instance, the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) is running the Recycle Network of Belize. With this, the organization is promoting a zero-waste approach and implementing circular economies in order to advance recycling and strengthen the tourism industry (the No. 1 industry in Belize).

At Oceana’s Reef Day, I also spoke with Tyronne, a representative of the Belize Solid Waste Management Authority, who was there promoting the importance of proper waste management. Tyronne told me his target audience was the youth that was present at the event because he feels it's especially critical to educate them on the importance of sustainable waste management. The youth are the future of Belize, Tyronne said, and he feels that recycling is a way to show pride in Belize by maintaining the environment in a healthier way.

What can people do in the U.S. to prevent the dispersal of waste? We can help support our own recycling market and keep recyclables out of the environment by ensuring that we are disposing waste properly according to our districts' policies. For communities in the United States that lack the infrastructure for proper recycling, the incredible nonprofit Recycling Partnership utilizes public-private partnerships to make recycling more accessible and easier to participate in. The organization also implements community-engagement programs and generates campaigns to boost recycling behaviors.

In all of this, education is key. We have to educate ourselves on how to correctly dispose of our garbage. We have to educate ourselves on the issues surrounding waste management and the obstacles preventing individuals from participating. We have to understand that there are consequences that can occur if we do not act, and such inaction can put our health and environment at risk.

There is hope because recycling programs are on the rise, along with the promotion of circular economies. More companies are implementing products designed from recyclables, for instance, the rise of eco-athleisure. So, let's not make waste other countries' problem. Let's continue to follow the mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle, but let's add re-buy.

Images courtesy of the author 

Kelsey Gaude is inspired by the cross sections of people and the environment and believes proper waste management is the future of the circular economy and improving environmental impacts. She will graduate with an M.A. in Sustainability from Wake Forest University in 2016.

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