Why does single-use plastics represent a problem for any country?

The overproduction of single-use plastics is a serious problem of garbage generation for most countries around the world. This is because, despite their very short usage period, typical plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose completely. But, hopefully, it will be a different story for Costa Rica.

In this sense, Costa Rica has recently announced a pretty ambitious and innovative project for the next 4 years: to become the N° 1 country in the world with an integrative national strategy to eliminate single-use plastics. This announcement is a logical step when considering that, 10 years ago, the country’s authorities had promised that by 2021 it would be a carbon neutral territory.

What is the Costa Rica’s statistics in relation to this matter?

Internationally speaking, it is well-known that Costa Rica has been an example to the world by reversing deforestation and doubling its forest cover from 26% in 1984 to more than 52% this year. However, today 1/5 of the 4,000 tons of solid waste produced daily is not collected and, as a result, ends up as part of the Costa Rican landscape, by polluting rivers, lakes, and beaches.  

In fact, it is also estimated that if the same current consumption pattern continues, by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Could you imagine that apocalyptic scene? That is why great efforts are being made by our scientists, as well as the government authorities, in order to turn Costa Rica into a single-use plastic-free territory.

But is there any proven alternative to replace plastic materials?

Yes. In fact, some Costa Rican researchers have been experimenting new materials to make new products. An example of this is best illustrated by 3 university students who decided to research and find a better alternative for replacing plastic: a material obtained out of bananas, 5 times more resistant than current plastic bags, capable of disintegrating itself in 18 months, and that is additionally equipped with a pesticide releasing system. 

The solution was developed by Daniela Palomo, José Eduardo Castro and Sebastián Hernández, Chemistry students at the Universidad de Costa Rica and it won the Fair of Entrepreneurship, Development, and Innovation, held at that educational center right at the end of 2016.

After evaluating several ideas, they decided to work on cellulose acetate, a modified product obtained out of the cellulose extracted from plants, especially from yucca starch and chitin out of the exoskeleton of shrimps. Among its main characteristics are the abilities to avoid burns and the acceleration of the crop ripping process. Likewise, the plastic bag contains a pesticide to be gradually dosed.

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And how feasible can this project be?

Of course, it is not going to be easy –and we know it well. To promote these changes, they need all sectors to commit to actions oriented to replace single-use plastic through 5 strategic axes: 1) municipal incentives; 2) policies and institutional guidelines for suppliers; 3) replacement of single-use plastic products; 4) research and development, and 5) investment in strategic initiatives. But to assume such a tremendous challenge, there is no doubt that the citizens’ leadership and the participation of all communities will be needed.

As a starting point, on last June 5th –the “World Environment Day”– the country officially launched its national strategy to replace the consumption of this type of plastics for renewable and water-soluble alternatives. That is to say, those materials that biodegrade themselves within a six-month period.

Who will coordinate the logistics of these strategies?

In this regard, you should know that this initiative is led by the Government of Costa Rica, through the Ministries of Health and Environment and Energy, with technical and financial assistance from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and supported by local governments, civil society, and various private sector groups. Apart from that, they have also promoted mechanisms for people, companies and institutions to join the strategy, by registering their commitments, voluntary actions and progress reports, through a friendly-accessing online platform.  

To conclude, this kind of “green” initiative in Costa Rica may become a feasible project and, at the same time, a potential source of inspiration for other countries in the region.