Solid Waste: A Problem in the Pacific Islands

I went for a run in Funafuti. Being a narrow atoll, you have two options upon leaving the hotel: turn left or turn right.  I had decided to do a long run so it was to the left. Eight kilometres later and the road ended; that is the length of the island (the red line in the satellite image below). Had I turned to the right it ends just over three kilometres.  So just imageenough to do a half marathon by running to both ends of the island.

One really gets a sense of perspective on just how small Funafuti atoll is when you are standing on the one road and the island is less than 40 metres wide. But besides reflecting on how small the place was, what my really brought home was the problem with garbage. Never before have I seen so much in such a small area.

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Now don’t get me wrong, Tuvalu is not one big garbage dump. It is a thoroughly delightful place with friendly people, well kept and tidy streets and homes, and the lovely sea views that one associates with the South Pacific. In fact, I would say that it is my favourite place to visit because it really is nice.

Tuvalu is also prosperous – at least compared to Tarawa. You see a lot of scooters here, computers, cell phones etc. But associated with such prosperity is garbage – from packaging to broken goods to old vehicles. Where do you put it when your island is only 11 km long, and much of it less than 100 metres wide? There are not many options…

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Old vehicles were stacked on the lagoon side beach. At least they appeared to be gathered in one place; in other islands I’ve visited they were often left by the side of the road where they died.  In the lagoon there is a rusting ship – but this is very common. I think there are about six of them in Nuku’alofa Tonga.

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The garbage dump was huge and full of everything from cardboard through plastics to metals. Even organic refuse was mixed with the inorganic. During each of my visits to Tuvalu it has been growing noticeably and it’s a worry not only because of the space it takes, but also the environmental impact: like the leaching of battery chemicals into the ocean.

While I was here this time we had a large team of film makers from the UK/USA here in Tuvalu looking at garbage, or more specifically plastics. They are doing a documentary on the impact of plastic on the food chain and human health. Even though we are in the middle of nowhere, small particles of plastic have been ingested in the fish and have entered the human food chain. There has been in increase in some cancers which had no history here and these have been shown elsewhere to be related to plastics. Tuvalu is but one small part of the story, and it should be interesting. Of course they visited the dump and, like me, were overwhelmed by what they saw.

But it could be much worse. China, Taiwan has been providing aid to Tuvalu to help put in place composting since some 50% of solid waste being disposed of are biodegradables. Without biodegradables it is estimated that some 1,100 cubic metres of solid waste is generated every year. Donors such as Australia and the EU are helping SWAT (Solid Waste Agency of Tuvalu) to develop a solid waste master plan with the goal of improving recycling, separation of organic/inorganic waste, and rehabilitating dump sites (e.g. compaction, top soil, etc.). All of these efforts will help make things a bit better.

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In the interim, my small contribution towards reducing the garbage on the island is to pack out my rubbish. If we do it when camping why not when flying? Paper, plastic bottles (not all mine – I carry a water bottle!) and other small garbage leave with me in my suitcase back to New Zealand where I recycle it. I know it isn’t much, but it’s better than adding to the pile here in Tuvalu.

I also had a thought during my run. We will probably be bringing in a barge with some 5-10,000 cubic metres of materials to resurface the runway. Rather than take it back again empty could we use it to transport rubbish off the island? Not sure, but I’ll follow up on it. Anything we can do to help is worthwhile.

While the modern lifestyle has many benefits, Tuvalu reinforces my belief that we really need to make efforts to minimize our ecological footprint.

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6 Responses to Solid Waste: A Problem in the Pacific Islands

  1. Ron Allan says:

    Using the discharged barges to take away rubbish is a very good idea. Getting Tuvalu back to square one may encourage taking steps to not let it build up again. But what are the steps? Many ideas spring to mind. Up to the specialists to recommend the long term options.

    • triduffer says:

      I had a chat with my environmental specialist about my idea of using the barge and he said the bigger problem is getting someone to take the materials. Good point. So I’ve given him some homework to do :-)

  2. vernon says:

    It is a similar problem in most Pacific island communities, lack of suitable landfill sites and much detritus from modern packaging. Incineration remains a possibility but at the end of the day most of the inorganic waste has to be transported out as the British did on Kirimati Island clean up of the Grapple exercise waste left by the troops in the 50/60’s. “Cans for kids” was another development whereby children and adults were given US$1 for 100 aluminium cans which were then compacted and containerised out at a considerable profit which was then re-invested in educational/sports equipment for the schools as well as paying for future collections. It also served to create waste awareness amongst the younger generation which is key and also to provide collection banks outside schools, bars and retail shops. Island societies tend to dispose of waste very casually, often in the sea. They regard it as someone else’s problem.
    Community mindsets have to be challenged and awakened. Education is key and all schools need to appoint an environment officer/teacher.

    • triduffer says:

      You are quite right about the need to work on community mindsets. It is interesting that solid waste is apparently less of an issue on Tuvalu’s outer islands where there is less money and more traditional lifestyles. In Tarawa they have tried to put in place a scheme to export recyclables, but given the number of rusting vehicles by the side of the road it has been less than a roaring success. Building roads and airports sure is a lot easier than changing attitudes!

  3. Lis says:

    Great idea about using empty barges to remove rubbish. But it’s only a short term solution isn’t it? How about education regarding what is shipped into Tuvalu in the first place – responsible packaging if there is such a thing. Plastics now come biodegradable as does different forms of styrofoam so it doesn’t all need to go into the lagoon for the next thousand years.

  4. Hi Chris;

    As always very interesting to read your news. I still wonder how you get time, though. Many thought through comments. Shall be interesting to hear what comes of it all.

    Mum-in-law.

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