A friend from up the Caribbean laughed at me on Monday evening and, unable to find any sensible defence, I was terribly embarrassed. Making bottled water exempt from VAT, she remarked with a loud chuckle, is ‘a level of worldliness which only you Trinis understand’.
Eight of our Caribbean neighbours have found the political will to ban plastics and reduce their use of bottled water. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, instead of developing a workable plan for keeping plastics out of our waterways and oceans, we are incentivising the production and use of bottled water.
Not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would hear the Minister of Finance announcing to the world in his marathon budget speech on Monday afternoon that bottled water would be ‘zero rated’.
Since 2000, some form of the Beverage Container Bill (BCB) has been before Parliament only to be deferred to another time. The current bill came onto my radar in 2012 because I was looking after the interest of a client. It was re-introduced into Parliament under the heading: ‘An Act to provide for the establishment of the Beverage Containers Advisory Board and of a deposit and refund system for beverage containers and for related matters’.
Additionally, the 2012 iteration of the BCB provided for the establishment of the Beverage Containers Advisory Board, a deposit and refund system for prescribed sizes of beverage containers, a regime for the collection of beverage containers to reduce their wanton disposal into the environment, thereby alleviating the pollution problem, and other related matters. As usual, the intentions were good; the implementation deficit we suffered was phenomenal.
Indeed, I have often wondered whether it is not so much that we suffer an implementation deficit as that, for reasons of political expediency, there is blatant sabotage of any implementation efforts.
It cannot be that the Members of Parliament are unaware of the importance of this legislation and its potential impact on the economy. When former senator Robert Le Hunte was still the spokesperson for them on the issue, the PNM Government promised that, by the end of 2019, plastic bottles littering sidewalks, drains and rivers would be a thing of the past.
The then public utilities minister expressed confidence that the bill’s ‘polluter pay principle’ would help create a recycling industry.
Many of us agreed, applauded and breathed a sigh of relief.
Where, pray, is Le Hunte now?
But even then, the BCB was not new. Back in 2012, then senator Ganga Singh had made the following remarks about the BCB:
“Mr President, we owe this to all generations. We owe this, in a sense, after its long period of gestation, to preserve this environment for future generations.
“So that, whereas we may expand the quantity that we produce, we will be able to retrieve that and we will have a stewardship system in place that will allow that to be retrieved, and we will be able to create jobs and create a whole series of incentives for a green economy.
“But upon this bedrock of the Beverage Containers Bill. Mr President, I beg to move.”
It would not surprise me that the then public utilities minister was proud of his public statement. Nor would it surprise me if he is still proud of it today.
During the same parliamentary debate, then senator Faris Al-Rawi had had this to say: “If you do any conservative extrapolation of the numbers and you look at an average between 25 cents and one dollar, and you take it at 75 cents for plastic bottles alone, Mr President, you are looking at a half a billion-dollar industry for plastics alone.
“Add on to that cans, add on to that packages by Nestlé, et cetera, anything that is a beverage under the terms of the Bill, you are looking at a billion-dollar industry.”
The debate on Minister of Finance Colm Imbert’s 2022 Budget will take place in the days and weeks ahead. Will we get an update from the current Attorney General on what has happened with the ‘billion-dollar industry’? It would not really be surprising if all we hear is reference to the Ganga Singh statement quoted above, would it?
Back to the present: so bottled water zero-rated as an essential food item? How did we get to that? In light of all the noise about transforming WASA, is that not a counter-intuitive position?
Implementation of the Beverage Container Bill is but one soft example of how our country can tackle a major environmental issue and at the same time incentivise the public to do the right thing.
Instead, not only do we continue to kick the can down the road to the detriment of the environment and future generations but we also potentially give a fillip to those whose commercial activity potentially exacerbates the environmental problem.
Would it be too much to ask Minister Imbert to explain the motivation behind the inclusion of bottled water on the zero-rated list?
I feel pretty sure his cabinet colleague, current Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales, appreciates the huge vote of confidence inherent in the suggestion that, because of the excellent job WASA is doing, a large proportion of the voting, oops, vulnerable population needs to buy bottled water.
Maybe I will get the last laugh but, truth be told, I feel that, on this issue, we Trinis will all have to put water in we mouth to talk.