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How the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu drastically cut plastic pollution | Environment

How the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu drastically cut plastic pollution | Environment
How the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu drastically cut plastic pollution | Environment

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For generations, the people of Erakor village in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu would pass their time swimming in the local lagoon. Ken Andrew, a local chief, remembers diving in its depths when he was a child, chasing the fish that spawned in its turquoise waters.

That was decades ago. Now 52, Andrew has noticed a more pernicious entity invading the lagoon: plastic.

“The plastic would form a small island inside the lagoon, it was so thick,” Andrew says. “We used fishing nets to pull some of the trash out, but we didn’t know how to get rid of it all. We couldn’t conquer it, there was just too much.”

While residents were struggling to empty Vanuatu’s waters of plastic, the country’s politicians were considering another solution. Could they stop the waste directly at the source?

Small island nations like Vanuatu face a series of unique challenges when it comes to plastic pollution. Many rely on imported goods to sustain their populations, and receive tonnes of plastic packaging every day as a result. Ocean currents pull plastic waste from around the world into Pacific waters, which eventually end up on the shores of its islands.

Pandanus leaves are now used instead of plastic bags at markets, but supply of the crop can be affected by storms and cyclones, vendors say. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Few Pacific island governments have adequate recycling or waste management facilities on their narrow strips of land, so rubbish is often burned or left to wash up in rivers or lagoons like the one in Erakor. It is estimated that Pacific countries generate 1kg of waste per person a day, 40% higher than the global average.

In an attempt to drastically limit the amount of waste generated in Vanuatu, in 2018 the government became one of the first in the world to outlaw the sale and distribution of certain single-use plastics – including a world-first ban on plastic straws.

In the six years since, the results have been impressive. Thin, plastic shopping bags are hardly ever seen, with most shoppers carrying reusable bags at their local market or grocery store. At festivals and outdoor events, food is more often served wrapped in banana leaves instead of polystyrene takeaway boxes. Now-banned items used to make up 35% of Vanuatu’s waste, but now make up less than 2%.

Ocean currents in the Pacific send plastic from around the world towards Vanuatu. Photograph: Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty Images

The plastic islands that once choked Erakor lagoon are also shrinking.

“Since they started the ban, you can see the lagoon has become cleaner,” says Andrew.

It is a massive victory for a small island nation made up of just over 300,000 people across 83 islands. And it came about thanks to a Facebook post made by a French immigrant, Christelle Thieffry.

Thieffry arrived in Vanuatu more than 20 years ago, and like many watched in disgust when plastic litter would swirl across Vanuatu’s skies when the wind picked up. In March 2017, she and her husband decided to take action.

“We started a Facebook page called ‘no plastic bag, please’, and we also initiated a petition asking people to sign it to ban single-use plastic bags,” Thieffrey says. A few weeks later, the petition had accumulated 2,000 signatures and in July the prime minister mentioned it in a speech to the nation.

“It did feel a bit amazing and quite magical too,” Thieffry says. “They were passing on a really strong message that Vanuatu needed to save turtles and fish and not have plastics flying around.”

Eventually, the petition landed on the desk of the then foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu. He was tasked with developing and implementing the policy, which included fines of at least 20,000 vatu (£130) for those found flouting the ban – a significant sum for many locals.

In 2020, a second phase of the policy added seven more items to the list of forbidden plastics, which now covers cutlery, single-use plates and artificial flowers.

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“It’s quite difficult to enforce because of the very low capacity of the department of environment,” Regenvanu says. “So we try to work with the municipal authorities and customs and other people as well.”

Compromises had to be made, though. Fishers are still allowed to use plastic to wrap and transport their produce. Plastic bottles are also permitted, even though they often litter coastlines and rivers.

Lunch now comes wrapped in a banana leaf across Vanuatu. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Secondary industries have now developed to provide sustainable alternatives to the banned items. On the island of Pentecost, communities have started replacing plastic planter pots with biodegradable ones made from native pandanus leaves. Mama’s Laef, a social enterprise that began selling fabric sanitary napkins before the ban, has since expanded its range to reusable nappies and bags.

“We came up with these ideas to reduce the amount of plastic in Vanuatu,” says the owner Jack Kalsrap. “We’re a small island state, so we know that pollution can really overwhelm us more than in other, bigger countries.”

But adapting to the plastic ban has not been easy for everyone. In the local fruit and vegetable market, plastic bags were once freely available to vendors and customers alike. Anna George, a vendor, says many of them have tried weaving their own sustainable bags out of coconut or pandanus leaves. But still, “there’s nothing else like plastic”.

“Market vendors have to be creative, but at the same time there are disadvantages [to woven bags],” she says. “If there’s a cyclone that destroys the coconut or pandanus leaves, then we have to rush to [the local store] to buy bags for 20 vatu.”

Though plastic bag pollution has reduced since the ban, plastic waste continues to ravage Vanuatu’s environment, and swimming is no longer allowed in Erakor lagoon due to pollution.

Willy Sylverio, a coordinator of the Erakor Bridge Youth Association, is trying to find ways to recycle the litter his team regularly dredges up from the lagoon.

“The majority of the plastic waste now comes from noodle packaging or rice packaging, or biscuit packets,” Sylverio says. He hopes the plastic ban will one day include all packaging that covers imported goods. “Banning all plastic is a great idea, because it blocks the main road through which our environment is polluted.”

The Vanuatu government plans to expand the plastic ban to include disposable nappies, and says it will also introduce a plastic bottle deposit scheme this year to help recycle the remaining plastic waste in the country.

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