The East Caribbean nation of Dominica prides itself on its beauty.
It's nestled in blue waters, is filled with spectacular rainforests and draws tourists with the nickname of “Nature Island.” To protect its greatest assets, the small island nation recently took an ambitious step.
By January 2019, Dominica, home to 70,000 people, plans to fully ban all common plastic and styrofoam single-use food containers.
In an announcement detailing the decision last month, the government explained that the decision builds on an earlier initiative to restrict imports of non-biodegradable containers, an attempt to cut off their flow into the stores and restaurants that distribute them.
“Dominica prides itself as the ‘Nature Isle,’” the prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, said in a statement. “We must in every way deserve and reflect that designation. The issue of solid waste management affects that perception and we continue to grapple with it.”
Other nations have taken steps to eliminate certain plastic items, chiefly plastic bags, but Dominica sees its move as a step toward a larger goal. In the coming years, the country wants to become the world’s first climate resilient nation. In addition to protecting its valuable tourism industry, the government hopes sustainable policies will make the island more resilient to hurricanes like the one that devastated the island’s infrastructure in 2017.
“We have a unique opportunity to be an example to the world, an example of how an entire nation rebounds from disaster and how an entire nation can be climate resilient for the future,” Skerrit said at a press conference in Dominica last year.
On the Front Lines
Dominica isn’t just on the front lines of climate change. The island’s warm waters are also one of the world’s most populous summer habitats for migrating sperm whales. Protecting these populations adds urgency to the effort to eliminate plastics that are known to be harmful to marine mammals.
National Geographic explorer Shane Gero has spent 15 years working in Dominica studying sperm whales. He says that compared to other regions, Dominica's waters still look pristine, but seeing floating plastic is not uncommon.
“Animals are curious, particularly the calves,” he says. “Sometimes they'll play with these clamshell styrofoam lunch boxes.”
Sperm whales can live as long as 70 years. Many live in family groups. Gero has been able to observe dynamics among whale groups for years. However, in the past several years, some calves haven't survived.
He doesn't know exactly why these young sperm whale calves died prematurely and says it's an issue still being researched, but scientists know that wildlife and plastic don’t mix. Whales and other marine animals have washed ashore in Thailand and Spain with pounds of plastic piled in their stomachs.
According to estimates from a 2015 study published in Science, eight million tons of plastic flow into the world’s oceans every year. But Dominica hopes that pristine waters will continue to be a refuge for some of the ocean’s most majestic animals.
A Larger Goal
Dominica’s announcement comes several weeks after a National Geographic’s special issue “Planet or Plastic?” that reported about the problems posed by non-biodegradable plastic, particularly in the world’s oceans.
National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry has photographed marine wildlife all over the world, in many places seeing the challenges plastics pose to the animals he tries to photograph.
“These are places that took days to get to from remote places like Fiji, and yet I would be on these uninhabited islands that should have been pristine and you're up to your calves in some plastic trash,” he says. “That just shows how much plastic is in the ocean.”