Bill proposal seeks solutions to plastic pollution

On January 21, 2019, a Bill was introduced to the Economic Affairs committee that would re-establish Costa Rica as one of the foremost countries in the conservation of natural resources and the fight against pollution. This project proposes an ambitious regulation that would prohibit public purchases of single-use plastics, prevent the production and import of certain types of polymers, and create a tax on plastic products.

By the time of its presentation, the bill had the endorsement of 20 deputies from various political parties, a situation not difficult to imagine, since there are plenty of reasons to justify efforts aimed at reducing plastic waste, for example:

  • The length of time plastic waste takes to decompose naturally is estimated at an average of a thousand years.
  • The production of plastic worldwide has experienced exponential growth from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 311 million tons in 2014.
  • Disposable plastic products account for 70% of all garbage found on beaches.
  • It is estimated that, for each square kilometer of sea, there are 13,000 pieces of plastic. That such concentration can occur indicates that human beings are consuming plastic without even knowing it.
  • According to a United Nations Development Program report, in 2017 at least 600 million plastic bottles were produced in Costa Rica, of which almost 90% were not collected and therefore would end up in watersheds, coasts, and marine environments.
  • The process of natural decomposition of plastic generates two of the main greenhouse gases: methane gas and carbon dioxide.

Despite the controversial measures included in the project, the bill’s chief virtue is that it does not only deal with imposing difficult duties on the private sector, but also divides the responsibilities of reducing pollution among all the people who cause it, which is in accordance with the principles of “Shared Responsibility” and “Polluting-Payer”, which are already universally accepted in environmental matters.

If approved by the Legislative Assembly, the bill would impose the following:

  1. Prohibition of Expanded Polystyrene (Styrofoam) for single use:

Article 4 of the Project would prohibit the distribution, marketing, production and import of polystyrene (trademarked as Styrofoam) products for single use. This prohibition would not apply when it is scientifically proven that there are no alternative products in relation to the capacity to conserve and protect food or other products.

This type of prohibition is not new worldwide. Since 1987 it has been limited to expanded polystyrene foam containers in certain states of the United States and there are currently more than 100 locations in that country, which have some type of restriction in their use. Similar examples are also found in China, Taiwan, Canada, and India.

Therefore, although the ban may have immediate effects that destabilize the economy of certain sectors, in the market, there are already enough products that serve as an alternative to polystyrene whose global warming potential is between 1000 and 1200 times higher than Carbon Dioxide Emissions.

  1. Prohibition on Purchases by the Public Administration:

Article 5 of the Bill would prohibit state institutions from buying plastic single-use products. Since this initiative has already been taken by different administrations individually, a ban on single-use products has already proven to be a real possibility in Costa Rica.

However, this prohibition is not absolute, since for reasons of health and safety certain medical and pharmaceutical products such as syringes, masks, bags for serum, nozzles, nebulizers, etc. can be exempted.

  1. Prohibition of micro-beads or micro-plastics:

Without exception, Article 6 of the Bill prohibits the import, distribution, and production of articles that contain micro-beads or micro-plastics.

Micro-beads are defined as particles of solid plastic less than a millimeter in their largest dimension made mainly of polyethylene, although they can also be other derivatives of petrochemical products. Micro-beads or micro-plastics are mainly used in human personal care products such as exfoliating cream and toothpaste.

In this case, the Bill opts for the absolute, a total prohibition because the products covered are harmful to health and the environment, with the aggravating circumstance that they are invisible and consumed directly by humans. Additionally, brands such as L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson and Crest have developed multiple biodegradable alternatives without negative environmental impact.

  1. Recycling Goal 2030:

Like the European Union, the Project proposes that by 2030 all single-use plastic containers that are imported, produced or marketed in the country are recyclable.

This shared goal depends to a large extent on the action of the European Union or other major players in the international market. Only if large markets begin to develop and demand this type of product will there be the necessary supply of a single-recyclable plastic product sufficient to supply the demand of the entire country.

  1. Plastic Tax:

Chapter II of the Bill proposes the creation of a Plastic Tax, which would apply to the import, sale or free delivery of plastic products.

Although the tax would fall on the importers, producers, or sellers of plastic products, this cost will be included in the sale price to the consumer, and with such this cost increase a reduction in the consumption of such products is expected.

Taking into consideration the aforementioned principle of “Polluting-Payer”, the proposed tax would be more severe toward those types of plastic that pollute more, or those that are not so necessary because they have viable substitutes in the market. Thus, the tax would be calculated in the following way:

Product Type Tax
Plastic supplies (except styrene polymers that serve as Styrofoam raw material) 10% on the customs value or sale price to the public.
Reusable plastic products 15% on the customs value or sale price to the public.
Single-use plastic products 25% on the customs value or sale price to the public.
Styrene Polymers 25% on the customs value.

 

In the case of imports, the tax would be payable prior to the customs warehouse release. In the case of domestic sales, a scheme similar to that of the Sales Tax is established, where all sales made the previous month must be declared and paid within the first 15 days of each month.

As we have seen, this tax is aimed at making the products more expensive so that their consumption is reduced; therefore, those items whose consumption is not optional, such as finished products and raw materials for the manufacture of biomedical products, are exempt from payment by pharmacists.

In order to encourage the recovery of materials, Article 17 of the Project establishes that any taxpayer who demonstrates that he made expenses in the recovery, treatment, or recycling of plastic products may deduct these amounts from the payment of the plastic tax.

  1. Mandatory labeling:

Similar to the labeling of cigarette boxes, the bill would mandate that all products packaged in single-use plastic materials have printed messages with images that describe the environmental effects of plastic.

This type of message has a clear effect of discrediting the product, and have as an immediate precedent the dissuasive propaganda that tobacco packs have been carrying for years. In the case of the latter, there was a wealth of discussion about the image rights of cigarette brands and the limitation imposed by placing a warning on their products. The generalized response to this dilemma has been that public health and the right to consumer information must prevail over the particular rights of companies.

  1. Blue Fund and Payment of Environmental Collection Services:

The Project proposes the creation of the so-called Blue Fund, whose goal is to finance projects that reduce the production of single-use plastic and the reprocessing of the plastic used. In practice, the Blue Fund will be administered by the Directorate of Environmental Quality Management (DIGECA) and will obtain its resources from part of the proceeds from the plastic and donations tax.

The Bill further provides that, starting with its second year of operation, the Blue Fund allocates 50% of its resources for the payment of monetary compensation to people and organizations dedicated to the collection of plastic waste in marine coastal and riparian zones. Such payment seeks to increase the profitability of collecting recyclable material, encouraging more people to join in this activity.

This compensation scheme is the opposite of the Polluter-Payer principle in that whoever conserves benefits. It is then a payment for environmental services, similar to those that FONAFIFO pays for carbon capture and removal services to people who conserve forests or manage forest plantations.

  1. Exemption from other taxes:

Article 37 of the Project establishes an exoneration of the import tax on the machinery and equipment necessary to recycle, recover, and transform plastic materials.

In addition, Article 38 proposes that products certified as compostable may request a refund of 8% of the General Sales Tax.

As proposed, the Bill that would bring wholesale changes to both the production of plastic, as well as the consumption habits of the entire public and its implementation would be a global advance in the fight against plastic pollution. However, the fulfillment of such ambitious goals depends greatly upon international supply and demand, as well as future regulatory developments.