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VENEZUELA: Caribbean Town Declares Plastic Bags Non Grata

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Aug 15 2011 (IPS) - A Venezuelan municipality where the main industry is oil refining, and that has an import-export “free zone”, is set to become a plastic bag-free area.

The oil-refining municipality of Carirubana is banning plastic bags.  Credit: Yanethe Gamboa/IPS

The oil-refining municipality of Carirubana is banning plastic bags. Credit: Yanethe Gamboa/IPS

The municipality of Carirubana is on the northwestern Paraguaná peninsula in Falcón state, near the Dutch Caribbean islands of the Leeward Antilles. The municipal capital is the port of Punto Fijo, with 270,000 people, home to the Paraguaná Refinery Complex (PRC), which is the second largest in the world and can process up to 940,000 barrels of crude a day.

The municipal bye-law that has been approved and is about to be signed by Mayor Alcides Goitía will come into effect early in 2012. It bans the sale and use of plastic bags with a capacity of under 30 kg; larger bags will still be allowed, for collecting garbage. Penalties will be exacted for infringements, especially against those who throw plastic bags away in public places, or burn them.

“This decision arises from concern for the health and education of our people, the beauty of our landscape and the fostering of tourism, for our peninsula is blessed with beautiful beaches and scenery, fine food, and a free zone,” Kile Baldayo, the president of the Carirubana local council, told IPS.

“The planet is choking on plastic bags. Everywhere in Venezuela is cluttered with them, from virtually every metre of coastline all the way to the tops of the ‘tepuyes’ (ancient flat-topped mountains in the southeastern province of Guayana), as well as our streets, fences and garbage dumps,” Baldayo said. “It’s time we did something to stop the degradation of the environment.”

Pollution from plastic waste is not merely a matter of an aesthetic blight on the landscape, Alejandro Álvarez of the ARA network of environmental organisations told IPS. “When garbage is incinerated in the open air, large quantities of dioxins and furans are released, which is worrying even though we don’t know the exact quantities emitted,” he said.

Dioxins and furans are carcinogens that are produced when plastics are burned, and accumulate in oily solvents, soils, sediments, the food chain and human body tissues.

Reasoned arguments justifying the ordinance were presented to the city council of Carirubana by Goitía and Baldayo, who quoted statistics from the environmental watchdog Greenpeace indicating over six million tonnes of garbage, largely plastic waste, are dumped into the oceans every year.

The text of the bye-law includes estimates by the U.S. Blue Ocean Society that 46,000 pieces of plastic waste per square mile (18,000 per square kilometre), on average, are afloat on seas and oceans, and that one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year through ingestion or entanglement.

According to the local environmental organisation Vitalis, 500,000 tonnes of plastics are used annually in Venezuela, but only 20 percent is recycled. One-third of the total is flexible packaging, so on average each of the country’s 29 million people uses about 150 plastic bags a year.

The Carirubana municipality’s new regulation bans the purchase, sale and distribution of plastic bags unless they are made of biodegradable or oxo-biodegradable materials.

Ordinary polyethylene, a synthetic polymer made from ingredients in mineral oil, takes hundreds of years to decompose, but oxo-biodegradable plastics contain additives that speed up the decay process to only a few months in the presence of sunlight and oxygen.

Biodegradable (bioplastic) bags are even better as they can be made from starch (present in potatoes and maize, for example), instead of petrochemicals.

Carirubana will continue to permit conventional plastic packaging in supermarkets for certain foods, such as dairy and meat products and ready-prepared meals.

María Eugenia Gil, an environmental activist with the Aguaclara Foundation, pointed out that “plastic is plastic,” although she said the local proposal is very useful for raising awareness among Venezuelans in a part of the country visited by many local and foreign tourists, and as a pilot project that could be replicated in more of Venezuela’s 335 municipalities.

With the ordinance, Carirubana is following in the footsteps of other places in Latin America that have also decided to abolish plastic bags.

In 2010, Mexico City ordered stores to charge customers for plastic bags, instead of giving them away free, and stipulated they must be biodegradable.

In Argentina, the province of Buenos Aires has forbidden supermarkets to give out plastic bags, and has ordered that those manufactured in future must be made of progressively more degradable materials.

The legislatures in Chile and Colombia are debating similar laws, while the Bogotá city government has launched a joint campaign with chain stores to replace polyethylene bags with other packaging.

The city government of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, has also campaigned for this, although no ban has yet been approved.

Several large Brazilian cities have banned the most dangerously toxic types of bag, but there was a setback in July when a state court in Sao Paulo suspended the ban on plastic bags in shops within its jurisdiction, in response to pressure from plastics manufacturers in the Sao Paulo industrial association.

Baldayo said the measure adopted in Carirubana was influenced by the one taken on the nearby Dutch island of Aruba with the aim of keeping its beaches and tourist sites free of plastic waste.

The northeasterly trade winds that pass over Aruba on their way to the Venezuelan mainland blow across two other municipalities before they reach Punto Fijo, and the Carirubana municipal government wants these municipalities to adopt the same bye-law so that it applies uniformly on the entire Paraguaná peninsula.

A municipal commission is studying alternatives to plastic bags, including the use of natural fibres, and will carry out a campaign to coordinate with stores and inform the public, before penalties begin to be applied.

These range from compulsory attendance at lecture sessions to fines of up to 120 dollars for individuals, or 1,700 dollars for companies, that litter public spaces with plastic bags. Persons unable to pay cash will have to do community service, like cleaning up streets, parks and beaches.

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