It has often been thought that periods of rapid economic expansion in developing nations must be accompanied by a lax approach to ecological sustainability. This has almost universally been the rule. The British Industrial Revolution coincided with a reckless use of resources and, similarly, we see now that India’s and China’s rapid growth correlates with an ever-increasing use of oil-derived products. However, Latin America may be paving the path for another way forward. Its recent turn away from single-use plastics shows that economic growth and unsustainable resource consumption do not have to go hand in hand. More countries and cities in the region are banning the use of single-use plastics and promoting eco-friendly alternatives.

Antigua and Barbuda, Belize and Costa Rica have all recently announced plans to ban the sale of single-use plastics. This rules out everyday items such as drinking straws, plastic bags and cotton buds. By 2021, all three countries will have banned their use – Mexico also seeks to join their ranks, based on recent discussions in the country’s Senate. Other Latin American nations, while not implementing an outright ban, have seen successful campaigns among citizens to regulate the use of certain plastics. Namely, grassroot campaigns against plastic straws in Brazil, Argentina and Chile that have led to their removal from sale. The UN produced a story on this issue, highlighting the city of Pinamar in Argentina, which has already banned the sale of plastic bags and is set to ban drinking straws and plastic cups by the end of the year. The ruling follows an initiative started by a surfer who regularly cleans the beaches and who noticed the abundance of drinking straws on the sand. These popular campaigns, generated from the ground up, are increasingly common and represent a current shift in public opinion.

As with most popular movements in the 21st century, viral social media posts are thought to have played a significant role in raising awareness of this issue. Videos in recent years have shown animals suffering after having consumed or been caught up in single-use plastics. Latin America and other developing countries use social media more than other areas of the world, as a way of sharing information between peers. Latin Americans account for 12% of the world’s social media usage despite making up only 8% of the global population. Social media is an especially well trusted form of communication in these geographies as it is often people’s first interaction with the internet, compared with email for North America and Europe. The source of hope in the battle for the environment, therefore, is that Latin Americans already seem so sensitized to the issue of plastic waste that they are motivated to change themselves and their legislation.

It has often been thought that periods of rapid economic expansion in developing nations must be accompanied by a lax approach to ecological sustainability. This has almost universally been the rule. The British Industrial Revolution coincided with a reckless use of resources and, similarly, we see now that India’s and China’s rapid growth correlates with an ever-increasing use of oil-derived products. However, Latin America may be paving the path for another way forward. Its recent turn away from single-use plastics shows that economic growth and unsustainable resource consumption do not have to go hand in hand. More countries and cities in the region are banning the use of single-use plastics and promoting eco-friendly alternatives.

Antigua and Barbuda, Belize and Costa Rica have all recently announced plans to ban the sale of single-use plastics. This rules out everyday items such as drinking straws, plastic bags and cotton buds. By 2021, all three countries will have banned their use – Mexico also seeks to join their ranks, based on recent discussions in the country’s Senate. Other Latin American nations, while not implementing an outright ban, have seen successful campaigns among citizens to regulate the use of certain plastics. Namely, grassroot campaigns against plastic straws in Brazil, Argentina and Chile that have led to their removal from sale. The UN produced a story on this issue, highlighting the city of Pinamar in Argentina, which has already banned the sale of plastic bags and is set to ban drinking straws and plastic cups by the end of the year. The ruling follows an initiative started by a surfer who regularly cleans the beaches and who noticed the abundance of drinking straws on the sand. These popular campaigns, generated from the ground up, are increasingly common and represent a current shift in public opinion.

As with most popular movements in the 21st century, viral social media posts are thought to have played a significant role in raising awareness of this issue. Videos in recent years have shown animals suffering after having consumed or been caught up in single-use plastics. Latin America and other developing countries use social media more than other areas of the world, as a way of sharing information between peers. Latin Americans account for 12% of the world’s social media usage despite making up only 8% of the global population. Social media is an especially well trusted form of communication in these geographies as it is often people’s first interaction with the internet, compared with email for North America and Europe. The source of hope in the battle for the environment, therefore, is that Latin Americans already seem so sensitized to the issue of plastic waste that they are motivated to change themselves and their legislation.

It is an easy rebuke, of course, to say that plastic waste is only a drop in the ocean compared to the much bigger issues of fossil fuel dependence and habitat destruction. These are undeniably more pressing issues and have a larger impact on the environment than single-use plastics. However, here too progress is being made. Last month, the Latin America and Caribbean Climate Week 2018 took place in Uruguay and was attended by a variety of voices looking to better Latin America’s climate record. Multilateral and inclusive discussions with a range of experts show the salience of environmentalism in Latin America and crucially represent a path for turning popular will into legislation. Meetings and conferences like this affect people’s opinions into political will. Turning against unsustainable single-plastic usage is therefore an extremely crucial indicator of the societal change that is likely to follow and cause an impact through the ranks of government.

It is certainly true that with less regulatory alignment than other areas, such as the European Union, overarching legislative decisions concerning plastic waste are more difficult to make. There is no way that Latin America could legislate against plastics all at once. However, the individual cases of municipalities, cities and entire countries in Latin America shunning the use of single-use plastics show that progress and change can be made.