PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Plastic and foam food containers. They're everywhere in this enterprising Caribbean nation, clogging canals, cluttering streets and choking ocean wildlife.
Now those pesky black plastic bags made of polyethylene and polystyrene foam cups, plates, trays and other containers that have become as ubiquitous as the vendors who peddle them in street markets are on their way out. Haiti's government has announced a ban on importing, manufacturing and marketing them as of Monday.
"This is a logical decision and makes sense," Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said. "Importing, manufacturing biodegradable items will benefit Haiti's short-, mid- and long-term environmental interest."
Black plastic bags are the primary mode for transporting items among Haiti's poor, who visit open-air street markets almost daily. They also are a key, but dangerous, ingredient in curbside cooking, helping food cook faster. The bags and containers are then dumped into canals, turning them into rivers of debris several feet deep.
Environmental groups have been pushing plastic bag bans internationally for quite some time. Rwanda became the first country to ban all plastics in 2008. Mexico City, Bangladesh and most recently Toronto are among the largest international cities that have imposed bans.
Argentina is calling for all supermarkets to eliminate non-biodegradable plastic bags by October 2014.
In the United States, bans have been approved in cities and counties from Maine to Washington. Nearly 50 cities and counties in California alone embrace a celebrity-endorsed ban. In Los Angeles, the largest U.S. city to approve the ban, bags will be phased out at thousands of stores over the next year or so.
In Florida, a 2009 attempt by the state's Department of Environmental Protection fell flat, thwarted by consumers.
Bill Hickman, who coordinates the anti-bag campaign for the Surfrider Foundation, one of the more active organizations on the issue, said he wasn't aware of any targeted effort in Haiti. He called the ban "great news."
Mostly cities and urban counties have banned the thin, lightweight plastic bags commonly used at grocery stores and convenience store checkouts. But some of the worst pollution from the bags occurs in undeveloped nations, Hickman said.
"We see a lot of issues in the Third World," he said. "Some of the most shocking photos come from places like Indonesia and Central America. These items are very cheap and easy to litter, and there is very little infrastructure to recycle them."
Many of the billions of bags used annually end up in the ocean, where they and other plastic debris kill countless sea birds, sea turtles and other marine life. The thin bags, which blow away with the slightest winds, also pose problems at landfills and in most cases aren't cost-effective for recycling.
"It's really kind of the tip of the plastic pollution iceberg," Hickman said. "Plastic does not biodegrade. It may (break down in sunlight) over time into smaller pieces, but it persists well past our lifetimes in the environment."
The Haitian crackdown was announced last month by President Michel Martelly and was met with confusion and public protests because it was assumed that plastic bags used for potable water were also being targeted — but for now they are exempt.
For weeks, the government has run TV spots informing the public about the ban, which appears to be winning some support.
"If they tell us not to sell them, we won't," said Christine Resile, 39, a mother of three who began peddling plastic bags last year after losing her $50-a-month housekeeping job in the hills of Port-au-Prince. "We sell them because we don't have any alternatives, not because we love selling them."
Marguerite Etienne, who sells food on a congested curbside in downtown Port-au-Prince, said she will adapt to the ban.
"The clients will just have to come with their plates and bowls as they did before we started using the containers," she said, frying plantains and pork on a charcoal stove. To-go foam containers were stacked nearby. "These things litter the country. Haiti wasn't always this dirty."
But getting Haitians to adjust to the changes may be easier said than done. The containers, which come mainly from the neighboring Dominican Republic, have become an integral part of daily life. For instance, a day after Tropical Storm Isaac flooded the country in late August, Martelly posted photos on his Facebook page showing his wife, Sophia, distributing hot meals to children on foam plates.
Environmental activists in Haiti say while they commend the government for being environmentally active, they do wonder how Haiti — a country that already struggles to control its porous borders and collect taxes — will police the ban.
"I would like to see it go through, but I would also like to see them have a contingency plan if it doesn't," said Sam Bloch of Haiti Communitere, a group in Port-au-Prince that promotes environmentally friendly projects among Haitians. "There is still plenty of trash in Haiti that is waiting to go into the ocean."