By Susana Ferreira
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti imposed a ban on plastic and foam food containers as well as black polyethylene bags on Monday, amid concern that the country's poorest consumers would not be able to afford the substitutes.
The ban is the first in a series of government measures aiming to help the environment of the poorest country in the hemisphere. A broader prohibition on plastic and petroleum-based products in the Caribbean country could be combined with the eventual local production of biodegradable alternatives.
Clogged canals and roadside drains, as well as mountains of trash at street corners made up mostly of discarded plastic products, have been part of the landscape in the Haitian capital for the last decade.
"Look at the number of containers that arrive in this country, with their negative effects," Jean Vilmond Hilaire, Haiti's Environment Minister, told Reuters in an interview. "If we launch a local industry that can manufacture these containers with our own agricultural waste, that would be best."
The ban follows a global trend that has seen a number of major cities impose plastic bag restrictions, as well as some poor countries like Rwanda and Bangladesh.
But switching to potentially more expensive bio-degradable bags and containers might further inflame consumers. Protests in recent weeks throughout the country of 10 million, including one on September 30 in the capital, have blasted the government for high prices.
The first batch of eco-friendly containers arrived in Haiti two weeks ago, imported from the United States, and Hilaire keeps a small stack of them next to his desk. "These are made from agricultural waste," he said, holding up a light brown, hinged clamshell food container.
Although the ban went into effect Oct 1, Hilaire said there will be a three-month grace period. A feasibility study, funded by the government of France, will be conducted over the next month to examine the possibility of locally producing biodegradable food containers.
The announcement of the new policy in August created confusion over what kinds of plastic bags would be banned. Fears that small, clear plastic bags used to distribute drinking water — the most widespread method of purchasing drinking water on the street — triggered protests.
The ban forbids use of black polyethylene bags, which are made from recycled materials and are popular with street market vendors and their consumers.
Slightly more expensive opaque white plastic bags, stamped with red smiley faces and imported from China, are not being banned.
A few blocks away from Hilaire's Port-au-Prince office, Suzette Gay, 56, spooned rice and meat onto a plastic foam plate for a waiting customer. "I heard they were going to make us change because these plates don't break down," she said.
Gay pays about 30 gourds, or 75 U.S. cents for a package of 25 polystyrene plates. If the government provides her with environmentally friendly plates at no extra cost, she said she'll switch. Otherwise, she said, "I'm not changing."
Stephen Italien, 24, who lives in the La Difference section of the Cite Soleil slum in the capital, said a nearby canal is constantly clogged with polystyrene and plastic containers and bags despite regular community-driven clean-up efforts.
"Every time it rains, more garbage floods in," said Italien who supports the plastics ban. "We hope that people respect it, and that the measure stays, because that is what bothers us the most."
(Editing by David Adams and Jackie Frank)