By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
A depressing email popped into my in-box last week, containing a photograph of a rubbish-choked Maafushi harbor. I know the place well, having visited at least four times and completed months of diving training there.
Maafushi is an island in the Maldives, where ‘local tourism’ is allowed. In a 2016 piece for the Dubai newspaper, The National, in Paradise done cheap: visit the Maldives without breaking the bank, I wrote:
Long a favoured destination for honeymooners and high rollers, the Maldives is seeking to broaden its appeal. Once upon a time, government policy sequestered luxury tourists on separate dedicated islands, away from the local population. This is changing, as a result of then president Mohamed Nasheed’s 2008 decision to open “local islands” to tourism.
“Since Nasheed’s reforms, there’s been an explosion of small- to medium-sized developments owned and operated by Maldivians,” says Sharafuzzaman Anees, the operator of Shark Diving School on the centrally located Maafushi Island. These new hotels, restaurants and ancillary businesses cater to budget and middle-market tourists. “On some islands, local tourism is thriving.”
Now, tourists can interact with ordinary Maldivians, sample local culture, and enjoy the balmy climate, pristine beaches, and access to marine life for which the archipelago is justly celebrated – at a fraction of the cost of luxury resorts.
I found the picture of the garbage-strewn harbor depressing, as I’d previously written about my friend Renee Sorensen’s successful efforts to clean up Maafushi in Dengue on My Mind: Spending on ‘Diseases of Poverty’ Not Enough to Create Effective Vaccines. Renee was an ex-pat Norwegian, who moved to Maafushi to dive, and eventually launched two businesses. there
In the spring of 2018, she caught dengue fever and despite being fit, healthy, and only in her forties, died.
In my post, I discussed Renee’s can-do approach to Maafushi’s rubbish problems, an outgrowth of her second business, an echo-diving operation:
…which in addition to promoting more ecologically responsible diving, launched efforts to clean up and preserve beach and reef systems, and especially, to involve local children and teach them to understand and appreciate the environment in which they live.
I include a short, inspiring video, in Norwegian with English sub-titles, for those readers who might be interested in how one woman, along with friends, the community, colleagues, and visitors, has worked to institute better waste management practices to deal with the spike in garbage that has accompanied the spread of local tourism on Maafushi and surrounding islands. Much of this waste was either being burnt or dumped into the lagoon.
But to Renee, “the thing is that this is very easy to fix.” She knew that “In Norway we are managing the garbage well, and we are very lucky to have sorting facilities and recycling.”
Rather than despairing at the threats to the island she had made her home– waste, plastic, and reef destruction caused by global warming and a tsunami– Renee focused instead on solutions, enlisting locals and visitors alike to fix these problems.
So that picture of a rubbish-choked harbor hit me hard. The last time I was in Maafushi, in July 2019, the harbor was relatively free of trash, the reefs I dived were clear of debris, and the walls outside of the local schoolhouse were decorated with anti-plastic murals.
Yet it seems that Renee’s clean-up initiative is yet another causualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. With about a third of Maldivean GDP comes from tourism, and decline in tourism due to the pandemic has hit these atolls particularly hard.
According to the Undercurrent (non-subscriber) newsletter:
One of our contacts in the Maldives reports that the island of Maafushi, famous for local tourism, has been inundated with garbage during the decline in tourism caused by the pandemic. He says a lot of the islands are becoming like this, having no proper garbage disposal plan. So, they are simply dumping their rubbish, plastic and all, into the once-pristine sea. Tourists are charged a Green Tax, but little of that money appears to be directed to solving the problem. It’s a crisis that’s destroying the environment.
The newsletter included the picture of Maafushi harbor that sparked this post.
US EPR Panacea?
Yet the Maldives are far from unique in seeing a COVID-19 impact on its waste disposal systems, and a consequent buildup of plastic waste. Bali has also suffered, as Raw Story reports in Bali’s ‘trash heroes’ are cleaning up paradise, one beach at a time. And these problems are not just confined to tourist meccas. Heading west from the Maldives, past the mid-east, through the Mediterranean, and eventually across the Atlantic, we find the US confronting its own rubbish problems, with many U.S. towns and cities seeing strain on their waste disposal systems, including cancellation or curtailment of recycling operations.
Here what seems to be an optimistic piece in the Waste Dive industry publication, 2021 could be year for packaging EPR, nearly a dozen state bills in play, also caught my eye:
Groups who want to shift recycling costs away from taxpayers and onto product packaging producers are racing to be the first to pass extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws this year.
Several states have seen unsuccessful bills in the past, but stakeholders predict a combination of pressure from lawmakers, growing public concern about the environment and rising recycling costs could make 2021 the year at least one state passes the nation’s first EPR policy for packaging.
Although the bills in each state differ, most are designed to hold packaging producers, especially those behind single-use or hard-to-recycle plastics, accountable for the costs associated with managing their material in the waste and recycling stream.
Now, what’s to find fault with here? Especially as many European countries, Canada, and more recently, some Asian and South American countries, have successfully implemented EPR regimes. In fact, some U.S. states already have in place such systems for products including batteries, carpet, mattresses, paint, and pharmaceuticals, according to Waste Dive, although to-date, not for packaging. And to quote Renee again:
“the thing is that this is very easy to fix.” She knew that “In Norway we are managing the garbage well, and we are very lucky to have sorting facilities and recycling.”
The Waste Dive article provides a comprehensive summary of various state EPR packaging initiatives, with legislation pending in California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Washington, or expected in Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
The problem I have with the state framing of the issue as reported by Waste Dive is two-fold. One is the emphasis on recycling, to the exclusion of outright waste reduction. The second is the emphasis on a too-good-to-be-true shift of responsibility of the state and municipal costs of waste management for packaging to the makers of these packaging materials, arriving at a time when the COVID pandemic has severely strained state and municipal budgets, not only for recycling and waste management, but also for other public services.
Now, as someone whose adult life has coincided with the rise of neoliberalism – and its reliance on panaceas such as privatization to public problems, I know that efforts to impose EPR depend on monitoring and enforcement to be effective. Absent those safeguards, the burden is only ostensibly shifted to private companies free to disregard their responsibilities.
And those same public budgets that can no longer afford their recycling initiatives I’m pretty sure are not going to stretch to develop effective monitoring and enforcement of EPR packaging regimes. So while I hope I’m wrong, I fear EPR is the panacea du Jour, rolled out to replace the last panacea, our old friend, the recycling fairy, who I mention yet didn’t put much of a dent in the mountain of plastics waste the U.S. produces (see among many posts I’ve written emphasising this point, Plastics Watch: Recycling, Raccoons, and Rubbish).
The EPR initiatives discussed here involve packaging and I suggest outright bans might prove more effective, as many other jurisdictions have started to do. Plastic is simply not necessary for most packaging uses; we could revert to using other forms of packaging, which while not free of disposal problems, do not impose the same long-term environmental burdens as do plastics.
EPR for packaging may very well prove to be an important part of future waste management policies. But these have to be tightly drawn, so as not to be yet another example of the privatization sleight of hand, which while purporting to shift accountability, responsibility, or costs from public scrutiny and control to some private actor, does no such thing when the private actor elects to shirk that responsibility, knowing full well there will be no consequences.
Waste management is very much on the state public policy agenda. At the federal level, discussions centre on the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. EPR is a prominent part of the mix at both these levels, but requires meaningful monitoring and enforcement to be effective.
Alas, those safeguards I just do not think we shall see.