One Paradise at a Time
I’m currently anchored out at the legendary Cloudbreak, Fiji on a catamaran watching a white froth of waves breaking along the horizon. However it isn’t the perfect peeling waves or the rainbow wonderland of snorkelling that have brought me here. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been lucky enough to experience some of the most beautiful tropical paradises on offer in the South Pacific. From the amazing bays and atolls of Vava’u to islands in Hapaii inhabited only by palm trees and hermit crabs. Then from Tonga across to Taveuni, Fiji – the ‘garden island’ – or, the tropical island of your imagination complete with palm trees, reefs, jungle and unlimited mangos and coconuts. Every location I’ve visited has had a few things in common: consistently awesome coconuts, beautiful and friendly people, and always, no matter how deserted or seemingly untouched, the eternal plastic pollution.
The biggest problem facing an island like Taveuni, and many similar island nations like Tonga, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, is the growing problem of waste. Previously, diets based on crops and coconuts resulted in biodegradable waste. So when it was thrown out windows, burned, buried or washed away by rivers or tides there were no problems. Now however the chip & noodle packets, plastic bags, diapers and soft drink cans are lining roadsides, playgrounds and shorelines. Local markets no longer wrap vegetables in newspaper, but rush to give you plastic bags. Beaches are littered with plastic scraps, food wrapping and clothes that have washed downstream.
In more developed nations, beach cleans are a great way to get people to pay attention to rubbish and think about changing their habits. It’s more difficult here – even if people pick up the rubbish there is still no infrastructure in place to deal with it. At home, I can lecture people about getting a reusable coffee cup and drink bottle, but here it’s more about getting clean water and enough food. At a talk I gave in Vava’u on plastics, where I encouraged my tourist & yachty audience to drink tap water instead of buying bottles, I was informed in question time that patients had been reporting to the local hospital with tap-water related typhoid. Everything I’ve learned at home working with plastic pollution has to be re-thought here. While talking in a school in Fiji this week I asked the students to go and collect some rubbish from their playground, over half of them came back carrying leaves. The problem here is not just unsightly trash on beaches, but a need for a fundamental shift in lifestyle and mentality.
The U.N. estimated that in every square mile of ocean, there are over 46,000 pieces of plastic. Captain Charles Moore found in his research on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2009 that there are about 36 times more micro plastic than plankton – that’s a lot more trash than food. Dr Jennifer Lavers has found that 90% of the seabirds she studies on Lord Howe Island have some plastic inside them, the most being over 275 pieces in one baby bird (that’s the equivalent of a person ingesting 10kg of plastic!). The problem is vast, and growing every day. While the sources and outcomes may be different on these island paradises than in my home of Australia, we are still sharing a common ocean packed with plastic, and the problem is a global one.
It’s a little overwhelming to see somewhere so pristine faced with the giant monster of plastic pollution, and lacking the knowledge or resources to deal with it. Luckily for these islands, and the rest of the world, there are people working towards creating a more sustainable future. This weekend in Taveuni, the first shipment of plastic rubbish was carried away on a Captain Cook cruise to the main island of Viti Levu. It’s destined to be melted down and turned into diesel and clothing. Adrian Midwood, head of Ocean Ambassadors, is leading the charge – “We have a chance now to show the world what is possible when we work together. If everyone takes a stand now and plays their part, Fiji can be the world’s first island nation to effectively stop plastic pollution. We aren’t here to preach or tell anyone they are doing something wrong, we want to enable Fiji to do something right.”
I talked to hundreds of kids in Taveuni in the past couple of weeks about rubbish, recycling and reducing waste. I was preceded by a lot of incredible people with a similar message, which is already making a huge difference. A school in Wairiki is building a wall of ‘ecobricks’, made from plastic bottles filled with other plastic rubbish. A school in Somo Somo is starting an environment club to do sustainability projects around their school. Keep Taveuni Clean provided bins and overnight drastically reduced the amount of plastic on their local beach. This year was the second Tagimoucia festival, educating the community about waste through workshops and music. Taveuni is well on its way to dealing with the issue, and hopefully will inspire other islands to do the same.
While the full scope of this insane plastic problem is something everyone should understand, I’m staying positive that we can make a difference. We invented the problem so we should be able to create solutions. Model islands like Taveuni provide a great example for larger islands, as well as the rest of the planet – ultimately one big island with finite resources. All we can really do is take responsibility for ourselves and support organisations that are helping to clean up these areas and develop them sustainably, one paradise at a time.