23 Jun 2018

Samoa looks to ban all single-use plastic

6:55 pm on 23 June 2018
Beach with coral reef and black volcanic rocks on south side of Upolu, Samoa Islands

About 70 percent of the rubbish in Samoa's waterways is plastic, which the government says is posing grave danger to marine life. Photo: Copyright: mvaligursky / 123RF Stock Photo

Samoa will look to ban all single-use plastic from January, its government said, in the latest move to protect the country's oceans.

A government statement said the ban will initially target single-use plastic bags and straws, with an eventual goal of widening the ban to include plastic and styrofoam containers and cups.

"This issue is too large to for us to sit by without taking any action," said Ulu Bismarck Crawley, the chief executive of the environment ministry, referring to the global problem of plastic waste in the ocean.

Every year, 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the world's oceans, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, with that volume expected to increase significantly in coming years.

Millions of whales, birds, seals, turtles and fish are killed when they mistake plastic for food, or when they become ensnared in packaging. Recent studies found a plastic bag at the deepest point of the ocean, the North Pacific's Marianas Trench, and toxins from plastics have been found to be leaching into the food chain worldwide.

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A lot of the litter from Samoa's capital, Apia, ends up in the harbour. The government hopes a ban on single-use plastic will begin to address this. Photo: supplied

And that's before considering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of plastic debris about three times the size of France that's congregated in the northeast Pacific, and has recently been found to be growing rapidly.

"By making these changes as a nation, our positive impact will be felt not only by us in Samoa, but also by our global community," said Ulu.

While Samoa contributes little to the global plastic problem, Ulu said it would be wrong for the country to not join the global fight against plastic.

The country's use of plastic increased by more than 20 percent between 2011 and last year, according to research by the environment ministry, with the country disposing more than 33,000 tonnes of rubbish - about 20 percent of which is plastic.

Like most Pacific countries, recycling programmes are expensive and prohibitive, with countries having to fork out large sums to ship small quantities over a vast distance. Most of the rubbish generated ends up in landfill or, in the case of even smaller countries like Kiritbati, in the ocean.

James Atherton, who is the president of the Samoa Conservation Society and was effusive in his praise for the government's plan, said a ban on single-use plastic was one of the most direct ways to begin to address the problem.

"Plastics are a huge problem for us," said Mr Atherton. "A lot of it ends up in the lagoon and, of course, it has impacts on our marine life. Our waterways, especially in the built-up areas, are full of trash and, in particular, plastic."

The government said about 70 percent of all the litter in the country's waterways and ocean was plastic, which presented a huge threat to the country's marine life.

In this region, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and some Australian states have already banned single-use plastics, while New Zealand says it is considering it.

Samoa tried a similar ban about a decade ago, but Mr Atherton said that failed because little preparation was done to consider alternatives. Now, he said, there is global momentum for Samoa to ride.

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A plastic bag at the bottom of the ocean. Photo: AFP

However, he said the government and NGOs like his needed to work hard in the coming months to prepare Samoa for the ban, where he conceded there was little culture for reusable bags or plastic-free alternatives outside of a few stores in the capital, Apia.

"I think the key thing that we need to think about is alternatives," he said. "It's good in a way that the ban is not going to be in force until the beginning of next year, because that does give us a few months to work out the alternatives, which we must have in place before any ban like that can be effective."

Mr Atherton said the ban on plastic bags and straws should only be the beginning, and education campaigns need to be kicked off to cut down Samoa's wider use of plastic.

"We have a lot of fa'alavelave, or village events or family events where a lot of people get together and have a meal, and a lot of the time food is served in these single use styrofoam plates and cups," he said.

"We have natural alternatives, plates that can be made out of coconut ... so we need to be thinking about those."