Eliminating plastic bags in Monteverde

By Katrina Cortés
Plastic products are becoming more and more common every day in Costa Rica, and when discarded, can become a major threat to natural habitats, wildlife and community well-being. 
One of the most commonly observed types of solid waste is plastic grocery bags, offered by well-meaning shop owners. As a result, conservationists around the world have mobilized to minimize plastic bag consumption, a movement that has spread to Monteverde, the community and cloud forest preserve in the Tilarán Mountains, in north-central Costa Rica. 
In January 2011, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve began an initiative to minimize the use of plastic bags in the area. With the help of local business owners, the reserve hoped to use community outreach and environmental education to help local residents become aware of the dangers that plastic bags pose to the environment, both locally and globally.
For an entire year, the project advanced successfully. The reserve sponsored dozens of talks and meetings where community members and business owners discussed the best options for Monteverde to minimize plastic bag use and to educate the community. Business participants were unanimous in their support of a plan to phase out plastic bag use in Monteverde. Businesses like Trapiche Tours, Hotel Belmar, Monteverde Conservation League, the Santa Elena Reserve, Cloud Forest Lodge and Vidrios Vega were particularly helpful in organizing this initiative.
However, two large supermarket chains, whose owners are not from Costa Rica, did not want to participate in the initiative, which threw a large hurdle in the project’s way.
Smaller local stores knew other socioeconomic factors might lead customers to shop at these larger stores with free plastic bags available, and did not want to risk their customer base. Not wanting to compete with the larger chains, one by one, local businesses withdrew their commitment and the project collapsed.
Today, the Monteverde community still has a strong interest in minimizing their plastic bag consumption. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve recently partnered with intern researchers of the program on sustainability and the environment at the Council on International Educational Exchange in an investigation of plastic bag use in Monteverde. The results were both surprising and encouraging. Hannah Avrin, from the University of Washington, Seattle, and I interviewed 50 local residents and 12 local shop owners on their use of plastic bags. 
 We found that while 90 percent of Monteverde residents use plastic bags when shopping, 90 percent also reuse plastic bags at home. Nearly all respondents (93 percent) are aware of the environmental harms, revealing a high degree of environmental conscientiousness within the community. 
In addition, 50 percent of respondents stated that they use plastic bags when shopping because they forget to bring their own bags with them. However, 72 percent of respondents are willing to pay, on average, ₡50 per plastic bag when shopping. 
These results show that while people often forget their own bag when shopping, they are willing to participate in community actions, such as a bag tax of ₡50, to better encourage minimizing plastic bag use.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve hopes to capitalize on this interest by implementing plastic bag education programs within Monteverde schools and by looking for other bag options for local business owners. 
Survey results showed that 73 percent of local businesses interviewed are interested in giving customers a discount for bringing their own shopping bags. For example, Super Montaña collects used materials for the reserve’s internship to produce reusable fabric bags, and in turn, donates these bags to their regular customers. 
However, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve representative Lilliana González has stated that supermarket chains still heavily influence the community’s bag consumption. Although the community wants to minimize plastic bag consumption, the initiative will not move forward – at least not through a plastic bag tax. Overcoming this hurdle will take creativity, motivation and input from all stakeholders, and a greater conservation ethic on the part of the large supermarket chains.
Katrina Cortés is a student at Oberlin College in the United States. She is studying abroad in Monteverde through the Council on International Educational Exchange’s program on sustainability and the environment.