This January, Panama became the first Central American country to ban the use of plastic bags. This remarkable move aims to offset the negative impacts that single use plastic has on the environment and its inhabitants. Worldwide, plastic production has been increasing rapidly since 1950, largely in the form of products that are used once and then thrown away. Plastic does not biodegrade, and instead it breaks into smaller pieces that turn up in oceans and lakes. Birds and other species inadvertently consume plastic, mistaking it for food, and repeated ingestion of plastic can lead to death. Plastics themselves can leach biphenyl, an endocrine disrupting chemical, and there is evidence that microplastics are creeping into the human food chain.
In response to the plastic problem, the National Assembly of Panama passed a law requiring the gradual elimination of plastic bags in commercial shops, and Panama President Juan Carlos Varela sanctioned it on January 19. Small shop owners and pharmacies will have 18 months to phase out their current stock of plastic bags, while larger wholesale operations will have 24 months. Shop owners are required to replace plastic bags with more environmentally friendly options like containers made of non-polluting materials or reusable plastic. The law aims to reduce plastic consumption by 20 percent across the entire country, and fines related to the new law will be used to support recycling programs.
Audubon, as a BirdLife partner, works closely with in-country BirdLife partner, the Panama Audubon Society (PAS). PAS played a key role in the monumental passage of this law by mobilizing with other environmental groups to formally request that the President pass the law. According to Rosabel Miró, the director of PAS, the plastic bag ban is an important first step that will pave the way for more stringent restrictions on other harmful single use products like straws and styrofoam.