Plastic bottles litter a ghut in Pasea on Monday morning. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

Take a walk through Road Town, and you are likely to see Styrofoam and plastic littering the ground, the mangroves and the harbour.

This sight is unacceptable anywhere, but it is particularly disturbing in a tourism destination where the economy depends on a pristine environment.

This is why we strongly support the Ministry of Health and Social Development’s proposal to begin regulating the importation of single-use plastics and Styrofoam.

Besides creating unsightly litter, these non-biodegradable products harm wildlife, emit dangerous toxins when burned, and clog up the waste stream at a time when the territory is overwhelmed with trash from Hurricane Irma.

If that’s not bad enough, consider a startling statistic from the United Nations Environment Programme: In 2006, every square mile of ocean contained an estimated 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. The Virgin Islands-based non-profit Green VI calculated that the territorial waters include 31,750 square miles of ocean, which would bring the total number of floating pieces of plastic in the VI alone to about 1.46 billion.

A well-conceived plastic ban would require the use of eco-friendly alternatives, which are readily available in most cases. It also would send a signal to residents and visitors alike that the VI is serious about protecting its delicate natural environment, while providing a valuable marketing tool for a tourism sector that markets itself as “Nature’s Little Secrets.”

The VI would not be the first to regulate plastics. In recent years, countries around the world have been launching such measures.

In the Caribbean, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have implemented bans or restrictions on Styrofoam, plastic bags or plastic bottles, according to Green VI. More recently, Grenada banned the importation of Styrofoam as of the beginning of this month, and the sale of Styrofoam as of March 2019.

Any ban here, however, must be carefully drafted with the input of the community to avoid potential pitfalls. Prohibiting all single-use plastics, for instance, could also include the gloves used by medical professionals or other crucial items that cannot easily be replaced.

But such issues can be addressed with careful planning. As one example, the European Union is planning to prohibit certain single-use plastic products that have readily available alternatives.

A ban should also be accompanied by complementary policies, such as an import-duty exemption on eco-friendly products that replace plastic and Styrofoam.

Given the gravity of the problem — and the fact that the VI is falling behind other islands in the region — we hope to see action very soon.

Currently, the Cabinet is considering a proposal submitted by the Ministry of Health and Social Development after input from Green VI. Leaders should bring a draft law to the public as soon as possible with an eye toward passing it during this legislative session and implementing the ban by the end of next year.

Such well-conceived policies are essential for the territory to build back stronger.