Mesoamerican Reef

Eliminating Plastic Pollution on the Mesoamerican Reef

Trash collects along the shoreline in Roatán

Trash collects along the shoreline in Roatán. Credit: Karen Kasmauski/iLCP

Plastic pollution isn’t new to the Bay Islands of Honduras. On the three largest islands­ – Roatán, Utila, and Guanaja – locals have recognized its negative effects on their environment. At the same time, it has become so common that it is often invisible.

Think Beyond Plastic, an innovation accelerator, is pioneering a unique approach to reducing and preventing plastic pollution on the Mesoamerican Reef. “We work by building the economic engine for sustained, measurable reduction. Traditional approaches that focus on managing waste through recycling and incineration can’t meet the massive challenge of plastic pollution,” said CEO Daniella Russo. The problem is especially visible on small islands with limited municipal infrastructure and economic resources.

Recognizing the need for an effective solution in the Mesoamerican Reef that has a foundation for long-term success, Think Beyond Plastic designs interventions that maximize economic impact and minimize the environmental footprint. It helps businesses reduce plastic consumption and waste, accelerates local enterprises’ investment in plastic alternatives, and assists municipalities in developing policies with a goal of 100% reduction of plastic pollution from bags, straws, and foam and 70% reduction of other plastic disposables by 2020.

The Bay Islands pilot is intended to serve as a global model for managing marine plastics within island geographies.

The MAR project started with a baseline analysis of plastic consumption to determine the “hot spots” of pollution, by product, geography, and behavior. The analysis became an important element of the foundation of all programs: education, development of strategic policies and interventions, and developing investment opportunities.

Children with art display

Art displays are part of environmental education. Credit: Think Beyond Plastic.

Strengthening public awareness to secure the support of local residents and businesses has been key. Local NGOs and consumer advocacy organizations, equipped with outreach materials about the health and environmental impacts of plastic pollution, have launched projects targeting schools, businesses, parents and churches, and the general public. The year-long Bay Islands Plastic Reduction initiative featured public events such as art displays, a childrens’ drawing competition, and community celebrations of plastic waste reduction.

Awareness is paired with the active reduction of disposable plastic use. Schools on all islands compete to reduce their plastic footprint, which is projected to reduce plastic on campus by 50 to 70%. Municipal bans on plastic bags have resulted in 100% elimination on Guanaja, 80% decline on Utila, and 50% decline on Roatán. Similar bans on plastic straws, Styrofoam, and takeout containers and cups are expected to follow. Restaurants and bars have embraced the call for change and are voluntarily switching away from plastic.

“When we moved from plastic to glass bottles, we saved money and our customers started commenting right away,” said Shawn Holder, owner of Mi Casa Tu in Guanaja. “They liked the fresh taste of the new bottles and were happy to support the movement away from plastic. This way, we can pass the message along to our customers that together we can keep the island green.”

Children hold up stickers reminding customers to "Refuse" plastic.

Children hold up stickers reminding customers to “Refuse” plastic. Credit: Think Beyond Plastic

To ensure that behavior change is permanent, Think Beyond Plastic also works to secure investments in plastic alternatives that may have the dual benefit of creating jobs. They assess the potential of companies that offer alternatives, such as water purification systems that eliminate the need for bottled water. Finding markets for waste materials generated on the islands is also important. Two recently introduced businesses, Thread Int’l and ReFlow Filament, produce fabric thread and 3D printing filament, respectively, from processed plastic bottles.

Because plastic waste that washes up on beaches is brittle and dirty, it holds no value for trash pickers and recyclers. Think Beyond Plastic seeks to incentivize beach cleanups by bringing businesses that manufacture bricks from washed-out plastic waste and cement.

Finally, one of the greatest problems on the Bay Islands is the lack of non-seasonal, professional jobs. Think Beyond Plastic organizes business incubators for entrepreneurs who can in turn create more economic opportunities in plastic alternatives on the islands.

Learning from the successes and challenges of this pilot, Think Beyond Plastic is set to replicate the project in Cozumel, Mexico, another island with a strong sense-of-place and community pride, and continue bringing its innovative approach to the entire Mesoamerican Reef.

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