11 Apr 2019

Tropical trash: The impact of holidaying in the Pacific

From Nine To Noon, 9:09 am on 11 April 2019

A new UN report has painted a depressing picture of the rubbish problem faced by small island developing states, including the Pacific Islands, and found tourists are one of the prime offenders.

A tourist visiting these islands produces about 7kg of waste a day, compared to about 2.5kg produced by a local. 

That’s food packets, little shampoo bottles, bits and pieces that you thought you needed but you end up throwing away - a lot of non-biological rubbish that has nowhere to go.

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

This rubbish is putting an enormous strain on already-poor waste management systems, says AUT University’s Dr Jeff Seadon, who authored the report.

All of the islands closest to New Zealand were included in the study.

“We go to the islands and a lot of people just expect to carry on with the same sort of lifestyle they had at home and that lifestyle, for the islands, has to be imported.”

The water on some islands can’t be trusted straight from the tap, says Seadon, so plastic bottles become an issue, as does improving water treatment.

Tackling this problem requires a significant investment, he says.

“They typically just dump their rubbish. It goes to a dump which could be close to a stream or often the dumps are also on the coastline and that also makes them susceptible to wave action sweeping the stuff out to the oceans and it comes back to bite them again as well.”

Much of the rubbish tends to end up in the ocean or on the shoreline. 

This has a major impact on the economic wellbeing of a country - when islands get a repetition for having poor quality beaches, the tourist trade drops off and their foreign exchange also diminishes.

Recycling isn’t as straight forward as you may think, getting it off the island is an economic problem that may not pay in the end.

Nine Pacific Island nations are currently engaged in a programme looking at how to improve waste management systems. Funded by the Japanese government, in phase one the programme looked at improving composting systems and implemented collection services to pick up household rubbish and transport it to a central facility - much like what is done here in New Zealand.

“What this next phase of the programme is doing is looking to get islands to collaborate with each other and have shared services where they can.

“That will allow some return of the materials that were on the islands to more centralised places and, moving up the scale, to make it more economic.”

The cost of not doing anything is always difficult to work out, says Seadon, but for every tonne of waste that can be kept out of the environment, islands benefit to the value of somewhere between $35 and $400.

“For them, that’s a significant amount.”

If you’re planning on an island holiday, Seadon has three tips to help you do your bit:

  • Live like a local - your five-star accommodation produces a lot of waste
  • Eat local - all of the tastes of home have to be imported and are double packaged
  • Don’t litter - tourists often discard things like water bottles, take it with you and don’t add to the problem