Learning From a Country That is Completely Plastic-Free

Since you ended up being interested in reading this article, I’m sure you are aware of the big plastic issue and pollution all around us. I know my beloved event industry, unfortunately, also still contributes to this a lot with unnecessary merchandise, way too much unsustainable packaging, massive balloon releases that end up in our oceans, single-use cutlery, cups, you name it. If you want to improve your event regarding these issues, check out my other articles to make your event eco-friendlier.

So, I heard this amazing presentation about plastic-free islands at WTM 2019. Antigua and Barbuda had announced to be plastic-free in 2019 thanks to their ban of all polystyrenes and plastics. Wow, that was really impressive, and I didn’t know there was a plastic-free country before.

I later went to their booth and had another chat with the Marketing Support of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority to get further information on how the island is handling and organizing plastic-free events. Mr Matthew told me about how they handed out reusable shopping bags to every arriving visitor of the islands and even searched through their luggage (I wonder how that was even legally allowed ^^) to avoid that they brought any single-use plastic to the island. I was eager to learn more about it and get some great ideas for my clients’ events.

Though he had promised to connect me with the suitable person after the WTM, unfortunately, I never got any reply to my follow-up emails. This made me research on my own on how the island is tackling the use of plastic.

How to Get to Zero Single-Use Plastic in Two Years

Now, of course the island is not really ‘plastic-free’. Plastic is not the problem – single-use plastic is. And that is what they are tackling. We have to avoid creating waste plastic because it is the waste plastic that ends up in the ocean, polluting our ecosystems and diminishing biodiversity. This is affecting tourism because many visit the islands to see unique biodiversity or the simple beauty of them, which otherwise will be destroyed by beaches full of washed up (micro) plastics. And since these plastics originate on land, Antigua and Barbuda implemented land management practices to reduce plastic waste.

Starting to announce their intention to ban single-use plastics in 2017, the country successfully implemented the diverse bans over a period of 2 years. The policies were shared by the Ministry of Health and extended to all tourism businesses, and applied to everyone: private persons, grocery stores, supermarkets, caterers, etc. The only exemption was given to airlines and cruise liners.

Ok, let’s take a look what the policies actually banned:

  • No more food service containers allowed since end of 2017

    • Clamshells, hinge containers, hot dogs and all other containers made of EPS, bowls, plates, hot and cold beverage cups and cup lids

  • Plastic bags had to be used up until end of 2018, banned entirely afterwards

  • Plastic utensils, trays, egg cartons, polystyrene naked coolers also banned since January 2019

    • Spoons, forks, knives, straws, fruit/vegetable/meat trays

With this, all polystyrene and plastics had been completely banned by end of January 2019, making Antigua and Barbuda the first country in the region to ban the importation and use of all single-use plastics. They were successful with their approach and got local businesses on board by incentivizing the use of bio-based and biodegradable (compostable) alternatives. Suppliers and consumers could purchase these items tax-free. Approved items included sugar cane, wheat straw, potato starch, palm leaves, bamboo, cardboard/paper products, or GMO-free polylactic acid (otherwise known as environmentally friendly and sustainable PLA).

Plastic-free Events – How Does That Look Like?

What does this mean for the event industry? Plastic cups will be replaced with hard-plastic cups that can be reused, paper and metal straws substitute plastic straws, and beverage coolers are made from Mycelium (a fungus), mushroom, or green cell foam (made from corn). That sounds like a great start. So I went to check the internet on the implementation of these measures.

Well, I know fungus coolers are not the best way to advertise beautiful islands, and maybe that is why I actually didn’t find much proof of the implementation. But I also found photos from Antigua Carnival 2019 that clearly did not look like a ban of plastic straws or single-use plastic had been successful. I may be mistaken, but these straws do not look like you would be able to wash and reuse them.

Take Action to Become the Next Best Practice

Was that why I never got a reply on ‘real’ plastic-free events held on their islands? Who knows. I don’t want to diminish Antigua and Barbuda’s claim for being the first single-use plastic-free islands. Clearly the issue of plastic pollution is a big one. My intent by telling you about this nevertheless is that every step counts! While it may be easier for small island countries to reduce or even ban plastic from being used, still too few governments are really participating in this fight. Because I truly believe that by nicely asking businesses to reduce their consumption, you won’t get far.

Living in Malta myself, an island the size of the previous city I lived in, I see sooo much plastic waste everywhere. You can even see a change now with the airport being closed for tourists. If we would have a normal tourist season right now, there would be massive piles of trash bags piling up at every corner. If the government would hand out reusable shopping bags to every incoming tourist and stop stores from offering plastic bags, it would have a huge impact already. Also, refill shops like this one in Antigua (Guatemala!) should be supported a lot more to help fight plastic waste.

I want to encourage all of you to rethink your event approach and reconsider eco-friendly alternatives. Which item that you produce or use at your conference makes the biggest contribution to your event waste? Start by exchanging that. As simple as that. One step at a time. But it will help maintain and protect our ecosystems immensely.

And you don’t have to do this by yourself. If you wish for some ideas and support, we are happy to analyze your event for any eco-friendly improvement. We are in this together!

Have a wonderful day!

Kristin Sammann

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