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Plastic waste pollutes Central American waterways and coasts

  • Plastic waste pollutes Central American waterways and coasts

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Lake Suchitlan, in El Salvador, looks like a colourful blanket, covered in floating plastic waste. Unfortunately, it’s a common scene in water bodies in Central America, reports

Suchitlan is an artificial lake, the largest in the country, built as a reservoir for hydropower production in the 1970s, on the Lempa River. Many fishers used to live off the fish caught in the lake, but they say the fish now are deeper in the water because of the plastic pollution, and cannot be caught with their nets.

The mayor of Potonico, one of the small towns surrounding the lake, says the pollution is unprecedented, and there are less tourists as a result. Moreover, fauna and flora are being affected and black cormorants, once migrating through the area, are now a permanent feature and have become a plague. The Minister of Environment, Fernando López, said El Salvador produces 4,2 tons of waste every day, and about 1,200 are discarded and pollute rivers, beaches and streets.

Another area heavily impacted by plastic pollution in Central America is the Omoa region, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Locals and activists say the waste is carried by the Motagua river, the largest in neighbouring Guatemala, which in its last stretch forms the border between the two countries. The situation has even led to tensions between the two nations. Most of the plastic waste is carried by the river from Guatemala City.

The problem of plastic pollution should be addressed with a higher level of urgency. This year the Global Plastics Outlook by the OECD found the world is producing more than twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, and only 9% of it is recycled, while as much as 22% evades waste management systems, specially in poorer countries.

The OECD report calls for major investments in waste management infrastructure, along with effective legal frameworks to enforce disposal obligations. Waste management services are still being developed in some countries in Central America, while economic growth leads to increasing amounts of plastic waste. Nonetheless, traditional waste management services deal with waste once it has been generated, and source reduction is key to address plastic pollution and enable the transition to a circular economy model.

Prevention entails reducing the use of disposable plastics, promoting sustainable alternatives, as well as outreach and education: consumers should be aware of their role in the value chain and how to minimize their impact.

The OECD estimated there are 30 million tonnes of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and 109 million tonnes has accumulated in rivers. Such a build-up in rivers means that, even is plastic waste management improves, plastics will continue to end up in lakes and oceans for decades to come. In this regard, collecting the floating debris using barriers in waterways can help, as it is easier that cleaning efforts in the open ocean.

There is also a big role for water sector investments in addressing the global plastics problem. Improvements to wastewater and stormwater management services are necessary to ensure plastic does not end up in water bodies after it is discarded. Furthermore, improving the supply of drinking water in developing nations can significantly reduce the need for plastic used to deliver water to unserved populations.

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