In Haiti, plastic pollution is rampant. On October 1, the Martelly government says it will begin enforcing a new ban on the manufacture, use, and importation of plastic and foam containers, including food carry-out containers and the black plastic bags that have become ubiquitous in the country.

In the past ten years, this type of pollution has worsened in the most visible ways: choked streams, huge hills of the stuff, bags festooning trees: the entire landscape altered by tons of used plastic and foam products.

Why has this happened? Because plastic is convenient. Everywhere, you see Styrofoam or other kinds of polystyrene containers. Ladies who have tiny restaurants where food is cooked over charcoal in pretty basic conditions then heap the chicken or pork, rice and beans, and spicy cabbage into tripartite take-out containers, from which patrons eat and which they then toss to the ground.

It’s not that people want to litter or just don’t care. But rather that there is no other choice. You can either take the container with you for the rest of the day, somehow, and put it in your garbage can at home eventually (from which it will probably enter the same stream of pollution as one jettisoned on the street), or you can throw it on the ground. There are very few public garbage cans in Port-au-Prince or in Haiti’s other cities (although there are a handful of neglected dumpsters around the capital — they’re almost historic monuments because they’ve been in the same locations for so long).

In the old days when life moved more slowly in Haiti, the little restaurants had dishes or you brought your own plate or container from home. Fewer people ate “fast-food” outside the home. But as more and more people have crowded into Port-au-Prince (pop 3 million according to some estimates), family life is more strained, fewer and fewer people have the resources to cook at home, and the quest to cobble together enough money each day has grown so demanding that people don’t have enough time to cook. So the number of tiny food establishments has increased enormously and all of them see the convenience of the plastic food container or tray.

I have to wonder how the Martelly government intends to implement this ban, and how it will affect Haitians who’ve gotten used to this new way of dealing with everyday life. Clearly a ban on plastic containers and bags is a great and important idea if you can enforce it and if people can find another way to do their work that’s economically reasonable.

Banning these products will immediately put the people who sell them out of work, for example the itinerant commerçantes who walk around town offering the black plastic bags  for sale one by one. Haitian consumers can’t afford to buy some version of Trader Joe’s yuppie reusable shopping bags; although in the old days they had their own kind of multiple-use bags, often fashioned from burlap rice bags or recycled plastic strips. 

The ban is not intended for the worst type of plastic-container pollution: one-gulp plastic bags of water that are sold on the streets.

Recently, police jumped the start date on the ban and arrested two distributors of Jus Alaska, the predominant water-bag purveyor in Port-au-Prince, even though these bags are not included in the ban.

The policemen were set upon by an angry crowd.

Because if you’re out on the street in Port-au-Prince, you have no other access to clean drinking water. Especially with the cholera epidemic that has now raged for two years in Haiti (killing more than 7,000), people feel reliant on these bags.

So looked at one way, the government was wise not to include the one-gulp bags in its ban, even though there must be close to 100,000 and perhaps hundreds of thousands more of these bags used in Port-au-Prince every day, and then thrown away without provision for recycling. 

In any case, the ban probably can’t be implemented, because the Haitian government doesn’t have the manpower to enforce a ban on something so ubiquitous. Even should the government try to cut off the flow of plastic bags and containers at its source — in customs — the ban is unlikely to be successful. Customs is a known locus of corruption in Haiti (as elsewhere, but worse in Haiti); importers will try their best to get around any ban Martelly attempts to impose.

It’s all about bad government, in the end — the lack of a responsible state, although one has to nod at Martelly for at least offering policy words on this important problem. Still, the most basic needs of the population are not met in Haiti: there is no regular garbage pick up and no municipal water service that’s clean and always available. 

Haitians don’t even lobby or demonstrate for these things: they’re so used to not having them. Poverty is a harsh master.

In all likelihood the Haitian government in announcing this ban is responding to the new post-earthquake outsider community in Haiti that is horrified by the level of plastics pollution in the country. But of course those people come from places like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and Boston, where consumers have the resources to deal with a plastic-container/plastic-bag ban.

Some combination of recycling and replacement might work better than this ban; but organizing such an effort would be… difficult.

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