Slaves to the Vicious Cycle of Plastics

By: Omar Shamir Reynoso, Dominican Marine Biologist

When daylight broke this past July 12, the coast of Santo Domingo – the capital of the Dominican Republic – was awash with tons of debris due to the impact of Tropical Storm Beryl.  The storm brought with it an impressive amount of rain and, with it, through the Ozama River, washed tons of garbage into the Caribbean Sea.

Many were surprised to discover that this phenomenon is not all that uncommon. Sometimes the amount of garbage that surfaces is not that great, and perhaps this is one of the reasons the local and international media outlets had not paid much attention to it.  But this time, multiple voices from around the world and through social media outlets highlighted the “island of garbage” Santo Domingo’s seaside boulevard had become: a “sea” of plastic, foam and water hyacinths (Eichhornia Crassipes), an invasive exotic species found in the Ozama River.

The alarms went off and hundreds of government and civil society institutions, working jointly with the military, came together to remove the alarming amount of garbage that had accumulated along the shoreline. The authorities reported a staggering number of thousands of tons of garbage.  The images quickly went around the world and all of society expressed its concern.

The amount of garbage not seen in these current photographs has been deposited in the region for decades, and is much greater than the garbage and debris that surfaced on this particular occasion.  The most important problem is the high level of microplastics, which disintegrate into minute pieces, making it literally impossible to remove from the contaminated area.

On one side, Tropical Storm Beryl highlighted the inefficient ways citizens handle garbage. On the other, the storm revealed the ineffectiveness of the authorities due to the lack of effective policies that could help avoid the repetition of other similar phenomena.

The thousands of men and women who dedicated long hours to the removal of the garbage that ended up along Santo Domingo’s seaside boulevard discovered that the great majority of the waste material consisted of plastic and foam. These two components, the same that were being used for their food and beverages during the cleaning, turned out to be the most difficult elements in the battle carried out to remove garbage from the shoreline. In addition, interestingly enough, just a few kilometers from the site, hundreds of balloons were released into the air to celebrate the unveiling of a bust of the country’s most important founding father, ignoring the problem plastic balloons represent when the time comes to remove them.

The moral of this story is quite clear: civil society, the private sector, as well as the government and military authorities, must severely crack down on the use of plastic and foam materials.

However, not all is lost for Dominicans. In Puerto Plata’s Bayardo neighborhood – part of the north coast’s most important city – its residents have come up with an initiative to classify garbage, demonstrating that where there is a will there is a way. All that is needed is a simple spark to get things going.

On the other hand, and more recently, the Chamber of Deputies in Congress approved a bill on the handling of solid waste and opening a whole new chapter on the issue of solid waste management in the country. Important challenges are still pending for this regulation to comply with the required standards necessary, and that can eventually contribute to educate the population at all levels.

The dramatic images of the “sea of plastic and garbage” that we saw just a few days ago served to expose the problem and generate pending conversations on this issue. We now face an additional task: finding sustainable solutions of an equal or greater magnitude, that will eliminate the generalized worldwide perception that “in the DR we are dirty.”

What can be done? Each citizen can reduce his or her use of plastics (such as plastic bags and straws) and eliminate the use of foam articles. There is also a petition to prohibit the use of plastic bags in the Dominican Republic. You may support the petition by signing here. You can also receive more information on these issues.  For example, the DREFF features a series of documentaries that anyone can watch, free of charge, online (DREFF 24/7).

And, finally, you may also contribute to improve the country’s international image by sharing through social media and sending to international media outlets the best sustainable practices we have here, as well as positive images and best practices to follow.

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