Plastic Pollution in Costa Rica
Plastic pollution poses a threat both to humans and the environment of Costa Rica (Neeld et al. 2018). Several industries, including fisheries and tourism, are threatened by improper disposal of plastics. Of the nearly US$60 billion GDP that Costa Rica generates, around 1.4% of this comes from fishing (Global Marine Commodities), and 5% comes from tourism (OECD 2020). In primary and secondary markets, the two industries collectively employ close to 200,000 Costa Ricans (OECD 2020). Estimates of future plastic waste demonstrate that these industries will continue to be inhibited by further increases in plastic waste mismanagement (Lebreton and Andrady 2019), leading to an overall decline in the general welfare of Costa Rica (Neeld et al. 2018).
The Lebreton and Andrady (2019) seminal study projects scenarios of mismanaged plastic waste based on country-level data on population and waste management and distribution, clarifying the extent of current and future plastic pollution problems in each country, including Costa Rica. The study estimates that, in 2015 alone, Costa Rica released nearly 10 million kilograms of mismanaged plastic waste (MPW). With no additional interventions, MPW is expected to reach 16 million kilograms by 2040 and nearly double to almost 20 million kilograms by 2060.
To better understand plastic pollution in Costa Rica, it is also important to note the circulation of plastics through both imports and exports. In 2016, US$1.4 billion worth of imports and US$597 million worth of exports plastics and rubber were imported to and exported from Costa Rica, according to World Bank estimates (Neeld et al. 2018). Further, Costa Rica’s plastic pollution problem was exacerbated when China—where Costa Rica exported US$1.37 million worth of plastic and rubber waste in 2016 alone—closed its borders to plastic waste imports at the beginning of 2018 (Neeld et al. 2018). As a result of the border closure decision, mountains of plastic waste quickly began to build up in Coast Rica, threatening to spill over into marine ecosystems. This crisis catalyzed Costa Rica to pass legislation and develop a campaign that would eliminate single-use plastics in most municipalities and businesses by 2021 (Neeld et al. 2018).
Most of the waste generated in Costa Rica is dumped into four main landfills (Center for Clean Air Policy 2013). Costa Rican efforts to effectively manage solid waste originally focused on landfill disposal. However, these efforts have been insufficient to properly managing plastic waste, resulting in plastic waste reaching both landfills and marine ecosystems (Neeld et al. 2018). Moreover, recycling programs in Costa Rica were found to be undesirable and inconvenient to consumers because of the need to pre-sort recyclable materials at home, stemming from a lack of proper facilities to collect and sort the volume of waste that was generated in Costa Rica. Currently, most of the fees for solid waste management fund only landfill disposal, meaning less funds are available for other solid waste management efforts that may be more effective in combatting plastic pollution.
Costa Rican Legislation to Address Plastic Pollution
Costa Rica has been working to address the problem of plastic pollution on national level, with initial legislation and a national strategy introduced in 2017. The national strategy has been implemented through laws, as well as administrative agency action.
Ley para la Gestión Integral de Residuos (2010)
Costa Rica first attempted to manage waste with the Ley para la Gestión Integral de Residuos in 2010 (“Law for Comprehensive Waste Management”). This law contained general guidelines for improving waste management in the country and called for the need to pass more decrees that target specific aspects of waste management. In 2011, the Ministry of Health began setting regulations regarding waste as part of the implementation of the Ley para la Gestión Integral de Residuos (2010). The proposed regulations target Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), requiring broadly defined “waste producers” to develop, implement, and follow waste management and collection programs (UNEP 2021).
Costa Rican National Strategy to Phase Out Single-Use Plastic
In 2017, Costa Rica launched a national initiative to phase out single-use plastic by 2021. This ban targets all forms of single-use plastic, including bags, bottles, cutlery, straws, and Styrofoam, among others (UNEP 2018c). Most of the following laws and directives are components and results of this National Strategy.
Regula el uso, consumo y etiquetado del plástico de un solo uso (2018)
Costa Rica’s Executive Branch advanced regulation of single-use plastic through Directive No. 0-14 MINAE in 2018 (“Regulates the use, consumption and labeling of single-use plastic”). This charged the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce and the Ministry of Health to fully prepare the technical regulations for the classification of single-use plastics. This initiative was intended to better inform consumers on the environmental footprint that their purchases and habits create. Materials that comply with the newly adopted classification tool, known as Renewable, Compostable, and Compostable in Marine Environments (RCM) are given a rating of 1, and those that do not comply with the standard are given a 0 (The Tico Times 2018). This sets a standard for consumers to show them what is and what is not acceptable to purchase. The regulation directs that all single-use plastic products carry this label, but it is unclear if this has been implemented.
The directive also targets the two Ministries, along with the Ministry of Public Education, to implement campaigns (examples of older campaigns in Figures 1, below) to make the public more aware of the movement to replace all single-use plastics with renewable and compostable alternatives. Many of these campaigns are targeted directly at students enrolled in the Costa Rican public schools.
Figure 1. Example of Plastics Policy Curriculum (Vilela de Araujo et al. 2005)
The Directive instructs the National Environmental Council to fully articulate the goals, deadlines, and measures of success for this guideline to gauge progress and fulfillment. The same council, in coordination with the Ministry of Environment and Energy, is tasked with summarizing the actions carried out in compliance of this Directive by providing quarterly executive reports. This monitoring, however, is not readily available to the public yet.
Ley para combatir la contaminación por plástico y proteger el ambiente (2019)
The paramount step in fulfilling the National Strategy of eliminating single-use plastic was completed when the Legislative Assembly of Costa Rica decreed a law targeting plastic in 2019. This law, Ley para combatir la contaminación por plástico y proteger el ambiente (2019) (Law to combat plastic pollution and protect the environment), bans the sale or distribution of plastic bags and straws. The Ministry of Health, however, is authorized to grant exemptions. Alternatives such as biodegradable and reusable bags—which can be plastic, just not single-use—must be certified as having a low impact on the environment to ensure that their eventual disposal will not pose any major environmental ramifications. The law recommends that businesses incentivize shoppers to bring their own packaging to carry their purchases.
The law requires that importers, producers, sellers, and distributors of single-use plastic water bottles comply with at least one of the following restrictions: (a) regulate the amount of recycled resin within the composition of the bottle, (b) establish a program for waste recovery methods, (c) participate in waste management programs, (d) minimize waste generation through the development or use of more environmentally friendly products or facilitate recovery through less harmful waste disposal methods, or (e) improve the collection and management of waste by partnering with at least one municipality in a strategic alliance.
Beyond the regulations of plastic bags, straws, and bottles, this law gives the Development Banking System the authorization to generate research programs for innovation and financing to small companies that seek to address and reverse plastic pollution in Costa Rica. Government entities are also prohibited from buying single-use plastic items that are primarily used for food consumption. Finally, this law modifies the Costa Rican education curriculum to include information instruments on plastic waste and management.
The law was originally adopted by the main legislative body of Costa Rica. The law charges the Ministry of Health with all oversight and compliance regulation of the provisions. The statute directs the Ministry to produce a yearly evaluation report that documents the reduction of single-use plastic pollution throughout Costa Rica. To date, there are no readily available, public monitoring reports on the pollution reduction in Costa Rica.
Ley para la prohibición del poliestireno expandido, reforma Ley para la Gestión Integral de Residuos (2019)
This law (No. 9703) (“Law for the prohibition of expanded polystyrene, reform of the Law for Comprehensive Waste Management”) prohibits the importation, commercialization, and delivery of polystyrene containers in commercial settings in favor of more environmentally friendly alternatives. The Development Banking System is authorized to grant credit to industries that look to develop these alternatives. The law gives the Ministry of Health the duty to include a national plan that encourages polystyrene packaging to be replaced with alternatives. The only noted exceptions are (1) in the case that using alternative materials is not environmentally viable, (2) the packaging of household appliances, and (3) in industrial uses. The plan by the Ministry must also include education and awareness components to inform the industries and consumers. Violations of this law are constituted as minor crimes once it goes into effect in July 2021. As of early 2021, researchers were unable to find a publicly available version of this plan from the Ministry of Health.
SINAC-DE-944-2020 Directive (2021)
The Ministry of Environment and Energy issued this directive that prohibits the consumption, use, and entry of single-use plastics in Protected Wild Areas of the National System of Conservation Area (SINAC) (Mora 2020). It applies in general to all users who enter the protected areas, including, but not limited to visitors, researchers, service providers, and officials. It also directs that the Protected Areas strengthen their waste management actions. The SINAC only applies to single-use plastic items and does not obviously contain an accountability measure to ensure the Protected Areas are implementing these plans. But it manages enforcement by warning users of the directive and confiscation of single-use plastics if necessary.
Northeast Pacific Marine Litter Action Plan
Costa Rica, along with seven neighboring nations that constitute the Northeast Pacific subregion, is currently developing an action plan that proposes appropriate actions at municipal, national, and regional levels to combat marine litter over time while stimulating economic growth, social development, and local prosperity (UNEP 2021). It has yet to be fully developed and released, but this plan has potential to be a strong intergovernmental approach to combatting plastic pollution, especially in marine environments (UNEP 2021). Likewise, it can complement already existing Regional Sea’s Marine Litter Plans in the Mediterranean, Wider Caribbean Region, Baltic Sea, Northwest Pacific, Southeast Pacific, East Asians Seas Region, as well as several national and subnational action plans.
While Costa Rica was the first country to pledge to be fully single-use plastic free by 2021, there is little to no data on the effectiveness of this campaign. It is clear that significant efforts were made to fulfill this promise with the introduction of the policies noted above, but the implementation of the policies is unclear.
Many of the policies have components that do not take full effect until the end of 2021, such as Law No. 9703 (2019) on the prohibition of polystyrene in commercial settings. This law does not actually take effect until August 7, 2021, 24 months after the law was introduced. However, this is not the case for all the policies and plans. For example, Ley para combatir la contaminación por plástico y proteger el ambiente (2019) charges the Ministry of Health with generating and publicizing a report on the reduction in use of single-use plastics for Costa Rica, apparently effective immediately. Our researchers were unable to gather any information on data on effectiveness from the Ministry of Health nor any outside research groups.
While it seems as though Costa Rica is making a concerted effort to reduce and eventually eliminate single-use plastics, the lack of data means it is currently not possible to track progress and evaluate the effectiveness of the policies.
Jonathan Schachter, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Rachel Karasik, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
John Virdin, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Thanks go to the UNDP Ocean Innovation Challenge for their generous support of this work.
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