Letter: When the people lead, the leaders will follow

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Dear Sir:

Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) congratulate the Village of Castara, Tobago, on their progressive move in banning the use of plastic and styrofoam food containers in the absence of Law. The rest of the country and our cabinet should take an example. Despite this government’s expired promise to ban styrofoam containers from January 2019, styrofoam is still being widely used as food containers all over our country.

The welcome wave of environmental awareness and consciousness has brought serious public health and environmental concerns into the limelight, opening doors for suppliers and manufactures of ‘biodegradable’ food packages. But are all of these so-called “environmentally “friendly” plastic alternatives really safe for human health or the environment?

Internationally, questions have been raised about ‘biodegradable’ labels on plastic bags and food containers which encourage naive assumptions that switching to biodegradable plastics could reduce plastic pollution and that its safer for the environment. FFOS has dug deep and is concerned about what we have found in that, styrofoam/ plastic food packaging alternatives can create new risks to public health.

Styrofoam/ plastic alternative risk to public health

Earlier this year, the Barbados National Standards Institution (BNSI) discovered that a number of replacement bio-degradable products that are also being currently imported into Trinidad, tested positive for high-levels of fluorine.

Fluorine in the form of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), is used widely in food packaging due to its hydrophobic (water-resistant) and lipophobic (grease rejection) properties, but according to the European Consumer Organisation an NGO acting as the “consumer voice in Europe” and funded by the European Union, products made from the chemical persist in the environment.

Furthermore, heat and grease from our foods can increase the availability of PFAS to be transferred from the container and into our foods. Some PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer, developmental issues, reproductive disruption, compromised immune systems and other health problems. Studies have also shown that these chemicals in disposable food packaging do not break down in landfills but eventually leach out and contaminate water resources and crops.

Earlier this year the US congress, introduced a bill – “Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act of 2019” to ban the use of PFAS on any paper used for food wrappers or packaging. The US-based Galbraith Laboratories tested a locally-used food package and concluded high levels of fluorine (over 6 times higher than the international standard for fluorine in compostable products). These same products with high levels of PFAS/fluorine are being imported into Trinidad and Tobago and used widely in our food industry without any legislative or regulatory oversight.

Misleading ‘biodegradable’ labels on plastic bags

The term “biodegradable” can be misleading since the public will automatically assume that these products will degrade faster in the environment. These products do not, therefore they should clearly indicate how long the material takes to degrade, or under what conditions.

Earlier this year, the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit conducted a study which showed that plastic bags with the labels – ‘biodegradable’, ‘oxo-biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ showed no ‘substantial deterioration over a three-year period. The report concluded that it is “not clear that biodegradable plastics can help reduce marine litter”.

Furthermore, a study conducted in Los Angeles revealed that labelling a product as ‘biodegradable’ was one of several factors that would be more likely to result in littering behaviour. The United Nations added that this behaviour allows for the potential for ocean pollution to become worse. The United State -California law SB 567 prohibits any plastic product sold within the state to be labelled as “biodegradable,” “degradable,” or “decomposable,” or any form of those terms and has declared that such terms “on plastic products are inherently misleading to consumers.”

FFOS appeal to our leaders in cabinet to:

1. Implement mandatory recycling programmes for residential and industrial estates. Once plastics can be collected and recycled, this reduces the volume of plastics entering our watercourses, rivers and oceans.
2. Legislate standards for food packaging containers being manufactured and imported in our country.
3. Establish facilities to conduct scientific analyses and certification before any alternative products are used as food packaging.
4. Encourage, informed and empowered civil service and Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards (TTBS) to enforce safety standards and regulations.
5. Embrace public participation and hold stakeholder consultations to explore a way forward in developing alternatives for single-use plastics and Styrofoam.
6. Remove the customs duties exemption on ‘biodegradable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ food packaging that contain high levels of fluorine and provide incentives/subsidies to our local manufactures producing safe, eco-friendly food packaging.

Castara has led our nation by example, now it is time for our leaders to follow.

Sincerely,

Gary Aboud
Corporate Secretary
Fishermen and Friends of the Sea

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