3 Jun 2019

Tipping point for Pacific waste problems - SPREP

2:42 pm on 3 June 2019

The problem of waste management in the Pacific has reached a tipping point, according to the region's environment agency.

Tourists generate more trash in small island developing states - and 80% ends up in the ocean.

Tourists generate more trash in small island developing states - and 80% ends up in the ocean. Photo: Oleg Doroshenko/123RF

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, better known as SPREP, said behaviour, laws, business and knowledge all need to radically improve.

The European Union has given $US18 million over four years to help SPREP address waste damage to people and the environment.

A recent meeting of 15 Pacific nations in Fiji focused on tackling the growing problem.

Bradley Nolan is the head of PacWaste Plus, the arm of SPREP tasked with managing all types of rubbish.

He said examples of waste the Pacific struggles with included: asbestos, e-waste, healthcare waste, plastic, abandoned cars and disaster waste that all polluted the environment and harmed human health.

Mr Nolan said a core message coming from country representatives at the Fiji meeting was it's time for people to change how things are done.

"As we all progress the traditional ways of living in the Pacific of grow, eat and throw, and allowing the environment to manage, when you add into the mix materials from the 21st century that don't compost and don't break down easily, those cultural behaviours then become environmental risks."

Mr Nolan said organised data collection, legal frameworks, business engagement and improving both capacity and education on waste management, were all part of the programme.

Countries with waste experts who attended the Fiji meeting included: the Cook Islands, Timor-Leste, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

A torn plastic bag drifts over a tropical coral reef causing a hazard to marine life

Photo: 123RF

Mr Nolan said the countries all had a huge amount of energy for change as the climate crisis was part of their everyday reality.

"Everyone who was in the room understood the issues, understood the opportunity and was open to all of the options and worked really well together," he said.

"I wasn't expecting it to be as exciting and as action focused as it was. The next four years of delivery here is going to be very exciting and hopefully we'll see a lot of change."

He said the ban on single use plastics by several Pacific countries was an example of the way law change could help nations address the growing problem of toxic inorganic waste that harms the health of communities and pollutes the environment.

The problem of cars being abandoned on atolls was also a major issue.

"End of life vehicles, the scrap metal, the used oil, the batteries, everything inside of those cars, they are exceptionally costly to get rid of and there are a lot of end of life vehicles just sitting on atoll countries that they struggle to remove," said Mr Nolan.

He said some countries at the meeting would move quickly to access funds to help them deal with the cars in better ways.

Mr Nolan said e-waste such as old computers and cell phones was another another challenge.

"We know that e-waste is going into landfills that may not be appropriately managed to western standards.

"Which means that the toxicity in the leachate coming from those is unnecessarily high."

However, there may be a silver lining if deconstruction and recycling of components and minerals could be introduced by partnering with businesses.

"So e-waste in particular is an opportunity for the Pacific," Mr Nolan said.

"Although the countries are spread out and the tyranny of distance is significant, the value of the product in e-waste, with suitable in-country deconstruction, is also significant."

Mr Nolan said some of the funding could become self sustainable.

"We'll be looking at what technology can come into the region that is built for the Pacific conditions that can help with processing this material into its value commodities, and then starting to use those commodities to fund the work that needs to be done in cleaning up in other areas."

He said waste managers were really resource and carbon managers.

"Everything that we throw away has a value. It's just is that value greater than the cost of landfilling? And that tipping point has been reached all around the world. There is a huge amount of opportunity and there's a huge amount of innovation coming."

Mr Nolan said part of the EU funding would create a new portal or database called 'Inform' to collate and distribute data to countries, communities and industries so they could use the information to make better decisions about waste.

He said this would help to attract businesses and donor funding as well as keep track of progress on various waste management problems.

Once SPREP had worked a bit more with individual countries on their specific priorities, it was hoped action would take off and also feed into a wider report on the state of the Pacific environment.

Rubbish piled up after floods in a settlement in Nadi, Fiji

Rubbish piled up after floods in a settlement in Nadi, Fiji Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Mr Nolan said the enthusiasm at the Fiji meeting was uplifting and the Pacific region could really lead the way with some of its innovations.

"The Pacific is at the forefront. Although there are small populations that are distributed, it does provide a huge opportunity to find tailored small solutions.

"People create new industries and find those niche solutions that won't actually work in metropolitan countries, so its an exciting time to be here."

He acknowledged the United Nations call for climate change to now be acknowledged as a climate crisis helped add more urgency to the issue.

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