Impact of the Construction Industry on Caribbean Marine Pollution

“Earth’s biggest landfill is not on land at all”

Reefs in the Caribbean have reported losses of 80% over the past three decades (BBC). Pollution from land-based sources is the primary cause of this degradation with more than 50% being attributed to the building and construction industry (US Environmental Protection Agency). Marine pollution is an environmental, economic, health and aesthetic issue and poses one of the most severe threats to the sustainability of the natural resources of Caribbean habitats, wildlife and people.

According to oceanographer, Kara Lavender Law, there is widespread plastic pollution across areas of the Caribbean and the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, comparable in size to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, an expanse of marine pollution the size of the state of Texas. In the Caribbean, about 80% of marine pollution originates from the land and most of it consists of plastic. About 8-12 million metric tons of plastic now enter our oceans during a typical year, most of it originating within 50 kilometers of land. Given the fact that our small islands tend to be highly urbanized around the coastline, this is a critical issue for the Caribbean region.

In North America alone, 22% of all plastics produced are for building materials, which is second to the packaging industry, which accounts for 35% of all plastics produced. When considering the amount of packaging used in the construction industry, the negative environmental implications are compounded. In addition, nearly a third of all industry-related pollution incidents are tied to the construction industry.

Plastic debris from construction wastes such as bricks, tiles, concrete, rebar, lumber, sheeting, etc. are a significant contributor to marine litter and coastline pollution. Other contributors to marine pollution originating from the construction sites include diesel, oil, paint, solvents, cleaners and other harmful chemicals. Dirt, plastic and other debris, silt, soil and harmful chemical runoff from construction sites result in turbid waterways which restrict sunlight and poison marine life.

What can be done?

Environmentally-conscious construction site practices can help to control and prevent marine pollution. This can be achieved through proper planning.

According to Caroline Bissada, Director of Barbados-based, East Coast Conservation Organisation (ECCO) Inc., “Environmentally sound coastal construction is very achievable with a proper scientific impact assessment before construction followed by the implementation of tailor suited mitigation plan. Once a detailed environmental plan is put in place and well executed it’s a win-win for the environment, all of its users and the developer.”

Specific measures that can mitigate environmental risks include minimising land disturbance and leaving maximum vegetation cover in order to reduce runoff; screening construction sites; covering skips and trucks loaded with construction materials; covering building materials and regularly inspecting for spillages so that they will not be washed into waterways or drainage areas; using non-toxic materials; covering all drains on site and collecting wastewater in settlement tanks for reuse on site.

Joint effort between R.M. Garbage Master Ltd. & Edghill Associates on the One Republic Project

The choice and selection of sustainable materials play a significant role—the environmental and economic benefits of sustainability are inherently linked.

New York-based construction startup ByFusion is pioneering the way in the movement to use less plastic and cut down on marine contamination by manufacturing environmentally sustainable building materials. The company is turning plastic waste into construction blocks known as RePlast, which they source from just about any form of plastic, including marine debris. ByFusion’s blocks have a smaller carbon footprint than concrete blocks, are strong insulators and require no adhesives.

It has become critical for the construction industry to adopt a green approach to planning, construction, operation and end use of building projects. The construction of green buildings alone will not solve the issue of marine pollution. We have to consider the entire lifecycle of every project in order to save our oceans which are our most important natural resource in the Caribbean. If we do not make an immediate change in our practices, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and World Economic Forum predict that plastic could outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050.

Construction Caribbean supports the Plastic Oceans Foundation on their mission to change the world’s attitude towards plastic within a generation, and through our channels will share the message across the Caribbean to bring awareness of the impact of plastic on our environment, our homes and communities.

For further information on the Plastic Oceans Foundation, visit their website at http://www.plasticoceans.org

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