Jamaica Enacts Ban on Plastic Bags as Questions Remain

In September 2018, a representative of the Jamaican government, Minister without Portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister Daryl Vaz, announced that the ban on the, “import, manufacture, distribution, and use of all single use plastic bags [excluding those used for sanitation purposes], straws, and styrofoam,” would commence on January 1, 2019. The ban will begin with blocking imports of these items and gradually transition to a complete ban of their use by the end of 2020 . In doing this, Jamaica is following the lead of several other countries, such as France, Kenya, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Vanuatu, and Zimbabwe. The burden of plastic waste disposal is particularly stark in developing countries, and the immense volume of single use waste can become overwhelming.

In Jamaica, recycling is almost completely restricted to the capital. Rural communities have unreliable or no access to household recycling collection. Residents turn to other disposal methods, like burning and throwing garbage in gullies, channels, and rivers. Even collected trash is openly burned at various municipal dumps to make room for more. During a casual walk on any unmanaged public beach, one finds plastic waste peppering the shore as far as the eye can see.

This abundance of plastic waste poses many threats to the island, and is particularly detrimental in terms of health and economic impacts. During heavy rains in 2017, choking of sewers and drainage ditches by plastic waste exacerbated the widespread flooding experienced in the North Coast city of Montego Bay. Floods stranded residents on the road, forcing them to abandon their vehicles, and trapped children in schools. The water and sediment caused infrastructure damage and substantial losses of commercial goods. This destruction serves a stark contrast to the popular image of Montego Bay, which welcomes the majority of the island’s tourists.

Jamaica’s economy relies heavily on tourism. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, travel and tourism accounted for 30.3% of GDP in 2016.  The public education campaign “Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica”, sponsored by the Jamaica Environment Trust, runs PSAs almost daily on local channels, portraying cartoon landscapes choked with trash, sickening residents, causing flooding, and driving away tourists. Impacts on the tourism sector are felt throughout the island, as residents, whether they are directly connected to tourism or not, suffer when travel demand dips. Residents and the government understand that a less healthy and beautiful Jamaica stands to suffer decreased economic activity.

Local Santa Cruz schoolteacher, Yanique Bruce, favors the ban, citing the buildup of plastic waste as a negative effect on health. She states, “Plastic bags never truly break down… they pollute our land and water [which] carries a high cost to our environment and human health.”

Vice Principal Janet Taylor of Guys Hill High School in St. Catherine also favors the ban. Citing the need to protect the health of the land and people, she states, “Because [plastics] are not biodegradable they also result in less productive land to practice farming. Presently, there is an outbreak of dengue in Jamaica. Most of the containers… are mosquito breeding places facilitated by plastic bags and containers.”

The detriments of plastic waste on the island are clear. However, the banning of these items poses it own challenges for Jamaica’s poor. The ubiquitous black “scandal bags”, or single use plastic shopping bags, actually serve a variety of functions for many poor families. A single bag could be used more than half a dozen times before it is thrown away. A bag is received for free when buying groceries, but goes on to help framers sell produce, protect a child’s only pair of shoes when walking in the rain, deliver food to an elderly neighbor, store seeds for future planting, protect books at schools during hurricane season, and collect and dispose of home waste. Of course, there are alternatives, as other bags are not affected by the ban, but these options come with additional costs that the poorest are in no position to shoulder.

However, current Peace Corps Jamaica Volunteer in Clarerndon, Loren Reese, observed that residents are adjusting to, and even taking advantage of, the ban. He states, “I have definitely started to see an effect [in regards to the bags]. In Maypen, stores have simply run out and are not providing them. The new hustle for the market ladies on the street is to sell you a reusable bag for $100[JMD], which I love and people are buying them.” She also notes that the ban is not affecting water bottles, which are a significant source of the island’s waste. TVJ news, in its September 17, 2018 broadcast, stated that the government is also considering a deposit refund scheme intended to mitigate the plastic waste issue further .[2]

Ms. Taylor recognizes that she must make changes in her personal life as a result of the ban, stating, “The ban has helped me to be more conscious of my environment and more aware of the dangers of plastic pollution. Instead of sending all my garbage to the truck, I am now forced to mulch the soil with food materials from the kitchen. So my home garden will be more fertile. Personally, I feel better with the ban.”

Jamaica is still in the early days of the ban, so the full impacts (both positive and negative) remain to be seen. As an island nation already acutely experiencing the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, policies that improve health and environmental outcomes are urgently needed. It will be up to government to make the necessary adjustments, while also protecting the nation’s poorest, as well as the citizens to embrace these changes.

The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) was contacted but declined to comment.


[1] https://www.wttc.org/-/media/files/reports/economic-impact-research/countries-2017/jamaica2017.pdf

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdjKGgxSeYw&fbclid=IwAR2pL3D9Nl6smrzZ7U0TL2joa39SWwbsVOuH4uCAXQyjPb49pZomp_wB9V8


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Anastasia Steinbrunner is a first-year MPP candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. She earned a BA in English Education from DePaul University and spent the next fifteen years working in Education and Development. Her areas of interest include entrepreneurship, educational empowerment, and international development.