“C’est trop tard”, “It’s too late”, said the elderly woman behind the grocery counter on Tartane’s beachfront. She’d just handed me a chopped up pineapple in a biodegradable cornstarch bag, and I’d complimented her on not using plastic bags. French law applies in Martinique, as a Departément d’Outremer (DOM) and since January 2017 French shops can no longer hand out any plastic bags, even for fresh produce. I would have taken the pineapple away bag free, but I knew the small knife in my rented apartment could not cut a pineapple.
So how did the woman in the grocery in Tartane already know what most of us are choosing to ignore? We are so late in recognising what our addiction to plastic is doing to our planet and specifically to our oceans. Perhaps, living on a small island and working by Martinique’s Atlantic coast, she saw the tide of plastic washed up on its shores each day. It was certainly visible to me: a hike along the Trace des Caps showed plastic bottles, plastic boxes, even flip-flops on the remotest Atlantic beaches. And snorkelling on the Caribbean side, I saw more plastic littering the sea floor than I ever remember from swimming in Belize and Cuba just 10 years ago.
But it was not yet the nightmare scene revealed in the Honduras marine reserves by Global Witness, nor yet the gloomy vision of the concluding episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2. There were plenty of fish, of many colours and many varieties to please the eye at every beach I swam off. What I noticed was that the coral was not what I knew from diving in Asia and Hawaii 20 years ago, nowhere were there the iridescent orange and purple coral gardens I’d delighted to swim in. Much was broken and leached of colour, making the sulphur yellow organ pipe coral and greenish fan corals stand out.
Our host Sandrine at the beach hotel near Saint Pierre told me she joined fellow divers every year to clear the town harbour of plastic, but it always came back, and always more of it. She’d been so horrified she’d resolved to live for a year without plastic, but soon realised it was impossible, plastic was in everything. And especially if you are in the hotel and restaurant business – can you serve a holidaymaker a pina colada without a straw and a swizzle stick? Can you tell your guests that the tapwater is just fine to drink when they ask for a bottle of water?
Just going on holiday brings a trail of waste with it: putting aside the carbon from the flight, you can’t take water through airport security (though you can take an empty bottle and refill it); your hotel bathroom may have a notice saying if you hang your towels up, they won’t change them but they often do; you don’t know if the landlord of your apartment actually recycles your glass and plastic (in Martinique they should, but I stuck my empty plastic juice bottles and beer bottles in the recycling bins myself wherever I could).
However it is the everyday usage in our everyday lives which clocks up the terrifying amount of plastic that is emptied into our oceans every year – 8 million metric tons a year, according to Global Witness. Sending plastic to China is no longer an option for us, they’ve refused to take any more “foreign garbage” from January this year. Which is an immediate problem as the UK has sent 2.7million tones to China and Hong Kong since 2012. Theresa May’s aim of eliminating plastic waste by 2043 – so just about in her lifetime and mine – cannot be achieved unless her words are backed up by much more draconian measures, on the lines of those the French have already enacted : stopping plastic bag distribution now and stopping the sale of single use plastic like picnic wineglasses and plates in 2020.
In these days of Brexit, we are unlikely to follow where the EU leads, let alone the French. But May did also announce a plan to use the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in April to work for a charter across member states to reduce the amount of plastic waste in oceans. That would be good news for all the Caribbean islands. Let’s hope it comes with some money attached.
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