29 Jan 2018

Vanuatu steps up fight against coastal and marine pollution

2:54 pm on 29 January 2018

Vanuatu is tackling coastal and marine pollution by banning single-use non-biodegradable plastic bags and polystyrene takeaway boxes from 31 January.

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Photo: 123rf

This move was sparked by an environmental field study report that revealed plastic litter was having a damaging impact on the ocean waters around the main island of Efate.

Head of Maritime and Ocean Affairs from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Toney Tevi said, from the report, the government and council of ministers worked together to decide which waste items were most problematic to the coastal and marine environments.

"The report helped us identify that it was plastic bags and takeaway boxes that was the most stressing."

Mr Tevi said the ban was only the beginning of steps being taken to manage the pollution to Vanuatu's environment.

"Bottles are also a concern, but we feel like we need to do more consultation around that part before we take it further like we have with plastic bags," he said.

Plastics wash ashore on the tide.

Plastics wash ashore on the tide. Photo: paktaotik2/123RF

Vanuatu Environmental Science Society (VESS) took part in the 2017 Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup last September as part of a global effort to rid the oceans of debris.

This included organising their own clean ups in certain areas to remove rubbish from the sea, beaches and waterways as well as collate data of what items they found.

The findings from these surveys showed that from the land clean up, a total of 35,101 items were collected, with 'plastics/foam packaging' - making up 67.8 percent of the litter.

However, the results from the underwater clean up showed that there was less plastic found (30 percent), but more glass bottles and aluminium cans collected.

According to VESS this is due to the fact that plastic does not sink and can float away or be suspended in the water column.

Chief Executive Dr Christina Shaw said it was the worst pollution she had seen in Vanuatu since moving there nine years ago.

Vanuatu Environmental Science Society completing the litter survey 2017

Vanuatu Environmental Science Society completing the litter survey 2017 Photo: Supplied / VESS

"There seems to be more plastic bags, more plastic bottles, things that used to be tied up with natural fibres in the markets and are now using plastic netting instead.

"We're seeing the same problems everywhere else in the world. It's just affecting Vanuatu now.

"Hopefully we can learn the lesson that have been learnt elsewhere and not let it get to the stage where it has got in places where the beaches are polluted with plastic rubbish.

"Most of our beaches are not quite clean, it's not that bad, but we don't want it to get to that stage before addressing the problem," she said.

Dr Shaw hopes the ban will get ni-Vanuatu thinking of ways they can be more environmental friendly.

Vanuatu Environmental Science Society bags

Vanuatu Environmental Science Society bags Photo: Supplied / VESS

"Choosing a natural woven basket instead of a single-use plastic bag is a great way to support the local economy and the local mamas when shopping.

"There's a lot of food and drink related litter that people just unwrap what they're eating and drop it in the street, so making them learn to not dispose of things like that will be a great improvement.

"The water in Vanuatu is above the World Health Organisation standards, so there's no reason to drink bottled water and if you do, use a reusable bottle that you can fill up from a bigger container rather than a small disposable bottle that will end up on the streets and filling up the landfill," she said.

Companies and retailers are given a grace period of six months to use up their current stock of single-use plastics and polystyrene takeaway boxes.

A manager at the supermarket chain Au Bon Marché, Wendy Melenamu, said she is unsure of when her store will action the plan.

Ms Melenamu said this will be a big mindset shift for customers when heading out to shop.

"I think Vanuatu people have been born and raised using plastic bags.

"It's a great idea having the ban in place, but it will take awhile for ni-Vanuatu people to get used to carrying their own bags into the shop to do their shopping," she said.

The government plans to add new laws to the country's Waste Management Act that will focus on managing plastic waste.

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