Lessons from the Pacific: What I learned about waste from traveling in Micronesia
It used to be out of sight, out of mind
I used to never think about trash. As a Western city dweller, it is easy to remain in blissful ignorance of garbage: where it comes from, where it goes. The only brain cells devoted to trash were for mindless separation, and remembering to take the seperated bags out before they got too full. Otherwise convenience (or a frustrated roommate) takes over, and everything ends up in the general bin. Beyond separation, occasionally a piece of trash would be so glaringly offensive that I would pick it up while on a walk or run. Mostly though, I was content with creating garbage, recycling when possible, and being an occasional trash gatherer (perhaps I should add plogging to the list).
In Amsterdam, where I live now, they take the “out of sight, out of mind” mindset to a whole new level. I had walked past the innocuous looking trash can for weeks, never realizing how deep into the ground the system went. Dumpsters are giant metal boxes housed underground, save for a deceivingly small street-level receptacle. The first time I saw a truck deploy a crane-like arm to lift the container out the sidewalk, it stopped me in my tracks. For the first time I thought about just how much trash was being stored, disinterred and shipped away without myself or my neighbors having to think about it. This is not the case for the Pacific.
The Pacific problem
In the past two years I have had the opportunity to visit two Pacific island nations dealing with a slew of environmental problems, one of which was waste management. In Palau, functioning waste collection is a luxury that many communities do not have access to. In the Marshall Islands, the highest elevation on any of the 1,000 islands is the peak of the dump (not so fondly called Mount Dump). In both countries, the amount of waste increases, and the ability to deal with it cannot keep up. The main demand for managing (read: burying/piling) waste is space. If there is suitable land, far enough away from houses and water sources, trash has a home. With population growth, suburbanization and an expansion of NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) attitudes, trash is now shipped around the world. China has begun saying it will no longer accept foreign waste, meaning many developed countries now will have to deal with their own. China used to manage almost 90% of EU’s plastic waste, and countries in the EU are realizing they don’t have the capacity to manage their own waste. In the Netherlands, plastic can be incinerated instead of recycled, a suboptimal approach, and a more sustainable local waste management solution is needed.
But that is the global waste industry. Small islands in the Pacific are, for the most part, not involved in this global trade in junk, recyclables, and straight up garbage. They import goods, but they don’t export garbage. At least not in the traditional sense. Enter, the ocean. The Pacific islanders’ traditional compost bin. Compost bin, because before plastic, glass, metal and other inorganic materials entered their economy, everything the islanders used was biodegradable. But now, with modern luxuries and goods, there is non-biodegradable waste to deal with. These island paradises are struggling to properly dispose of all the excessive wrappers, single-use throwaways and bottled and canned beverage containers. Trash litters the roadways and beaches, and even if it wasn’t tossed from the island, it comes sailing over from a faraway litter source. Perhaps a cruise ship, or a careless beach goer in Hawaii or Japan.
The tourism industry has been increasing rapidly as these islands continue to develop. Palau has focused its development goals on tourism, and as I can attest, these islands are Pacific paradises worth a visit. Unfortunately, this increase in tourism means an increase in trash.
In Palau, tour companies operate in the pristine protected areas (one of the largest and best preserved MPA networks in the world), but the visitors are served lunches in Styrofoam containers with plastic forks. In the Marshall Islands, hotels insist on serving bottled water and provide no options for recycling these insidious single-use bottles. Tourism will undoubtedly increase consumption on these islands, as visitors expect the same luxuries as their home countries, even if that means more imported goods, more wrappers, more plastic, more trash!
Learning from the Pacific
Fortunately, there are opportunities to improve upon the current system. And these islanders know better than anyone else how to do so, even with limited space and resources. When I visited Mejit, a small island in the Marshall Islands, a celebratory feast was made by the women’s group and food was served in beautiful plates woven from pandanus leaves. In order to account for the large number of people attending the feast, these plates were woven for the occasion, would be used once and then thrown in compost piles. Baskets were also made of the leaves, and when I asked someone if the gorgeous basket would be reused, she laughed and shook her head. I was in awe of the biodegradability and convenience of the system! On Mejit, coke cans were replaced by fresh picked coconuts, and plates by pandanus leaves. Also, since this island was so far removed from the rest of the Marshall Islands (let alone the rest of the world), they relied on durability. Things I considered throwaway, like empty coffee canisters, plastic forks, pieces of cardboard, were used until they gave in. Coffee canisters were threaded with rope and used as buckets, the perfect size for small wells. Plastic forks, well they were forks, just with a much longer lifespan. And folded cardboard makes a perfect personal fan for a sweltering equatorial day.
If we can work to reduce reliance on single-use, throwaway products, and improve the durability of what we do use, there is no reason an increase in tourism or industry must lead to an increase in trash. The unfortunate truth is the world is not going to get any more land (or ocean! ) with which to dump our trash on. So why don’t we instead rethink our products; think biodegradable when we must wrap or serve something once, and shift from one-time to lifetime usage.
Even if you aren’t a tourist or tour operator, you can help make this shift yourself. Pack a set of silverware, dishware and Tupperware so you won’t be forced to use plastic throwaways and bring reusable bottles. Shop conscientiously when booking vacations and trips, there are many options to book sustainable or eco-tours. Give feedback to tour operators when there is room for improvement, sometimes a carefully worded online review can be the catalyst for positive change, while also alerting other sustainable travelers of the worst offenders. Oh, and learn to weave a pandanus plate while you’re at it on your way to #GoGreenForTheBigBlue!