Plastic Battle in the Pacific: Is it too late to win the bin war?

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There’s no time like the present to reduce consumption of plastics, and at minimum reuse and recycle. In the Pacific, we are facing questions on what to do with our own rubbish and imports that continue to float onto our shores. Recent reporting about the well-known “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” estimates that there are more than 78,000 tonnes of plastic in an area of about 1.6 square kilometers. The rubbish patch has grown substantially, helped by extreme events like the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

This year, for better or for worse, certain trends are creating a momentum of impact on the plastic landscape. At the national level, some governments are refusing to take notice. Leaving recycling up to the market and local level to regulate has meant inconsistencies in costs and infrastructure across districts and states and impeded an effective national movement in many countries.

In addition to what is floating in the ocean, plastic and other recycling is piling up on land in Australia, the United Kingdom, Samoa, the European Union, and elsewhere as China’s restriction on imports of waste takes effect. According to the ABC, the ban will impact about 619,000 tonnes of materials worth $523 million in Australia alone.

But, when one recycling bin closes, sometimes, another one opens. This presents an opportunity to transform the industry and societal behaviours, take leadership, and call out harmful practices.

We’ve heard positive news from industry recently, who noticed rubbish piling up in the Pacific. Rather than leaving the Pacific islands with empty shipping containers after unloading exports, China Navigation wants to pick up rubbish and recyclable materials for free. It is still figuring out where and how to process the recyclables. Pacific Recycles in Samoa is the only major recycling operation in the Pacific islands, and is aiming to improve quality of materials so that New Zealand or other countries will accept the rubbish.

Unsurprisingly, Pacific island leaders are acting. Governments of Vanuatu, Palau, Marshall Islands, and American Samoa have signed on to banning single-use plastic bags. Some have also adopted levies on bags or bottles. In New Zealand, a petition to ban plastic bags was accepted at Parliament in February.

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In Australia, waste industry and environmental advocates are calling on the government to take action on regulations to encourage a circular economy or ensure purchasing of recycled products in government procurement. The federal government has signaled it is an issue for state and local governments; so for now at the lowest levels, local governments like the Hornsby Shire Council in the Sydney suburbs have it on their agenda to find new solutions for recycling and to consume less plastics.

While China has framed the ban on imports of recycling as a way to improve its environment, it could lead to an increase in new production of the same plastics. China’s demand for some plastics, particularly polyethylene, are forecast to rise to make up for the loss of recycled plastic.  Producers, then, should take more responsibility for managing the environmental impact of the full lifecycle of their products. Consumers can also refuse to create demand for certain plastics, recycle, and utilise the local resources available to understand lifestyle habits.

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Clean beaches don’t necessarily mean a clean ocean. Manly Beach, Australia.

It seems no beach or stream is free from pollution, but there are plenty of groups and individuals working to fix that. For example, the organisation Clean Up Australia has more than 7,000 registered clean up sites, empowering local communities with tools, networking, and knowledge. We know that commercial fishing gear make up a significant portion of ocean rubbish and have their own harmful impact on wildlife; recycling nets and other gear has turned into an effective business for more more than a few startups, converting them into carpets and other consumer products.  Bringing government, industry, and community groups together is essential to not only creating projects like those funded by the Australian Packaging Covenant but also to understanding global needs and expanding possibilities.

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Pacific Climate Change Conference Identifies Contradictions & Capacity

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Oriental Bay, Wellington, New Zealand. Credit: Genevieve Neilson

The likelihood of conferences on climate change to be impacted by severe weather events is on the rise. In February 2018, many participants of the Pacific Climate Change Conference were delayed or prevented from arriving in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. We participated in the conference because we understood the grave dangers that lie ahead to local communities and countries if there is no action to prevent a rise in temperature above 1.5 degree Celsius or a focus on adaptation. And, Cyclone Gita strengthened the resolve of academics, physical scientists, consultants, activists, and project planners to press for change. With the Pacific islands at the forefront of climate change, having a conference and community dedicated to showcasing work in the region helps to identify future needs for the most important transnational issue of our age.

Presentations on the world of climate finance, indigenous voices, and the economy provided contradictions in the way these issues are handled by policymakers and academicsPacific_ocean_news. First, there is a confusing ‘spaghetti diagram’ of funding models and mechanisms for attaining climate finance. As I’ve written, those that need it the most often have the least human and financial resources to submit project proposals. One presenter provided an example: a proposal for a $9 million project in one Pacific island country took 6 years and $300,000 to complete. Additionally, some overseas development organisations are using access to climate finance in order to climate-proof their existing aid projects.     

With panels and a keynote session on indigenous voices, the conference provided a platform to share knowledge and provide suggestions for non-indigenous researchers and policymakers. There was a major call to enable indigenous communities to protect traditional land-based and maritime cultural practices. Their rights to environmental self-determination in New Zealand and elsewhere have been eroded in the face of recommendations from external consultants.

Moreover, there are multiple levels of governance regulating adaptation projects but they are not all connected; in one example, local tourism operators in Samoa were not away of national and regional climate adaptation programs that were intended to benefit the tourism industry. Rather than claiming expertise and recolonizing indigenous practices, Western academics and policymakers should be more inclusive by inviting indigenous communities to the table to showcase examples of holistic approaches to ecosystem and economic planning.

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New Zealand Parliament, Wellington, New Zealand. Credit: Genevieve Neilson

Criticisms were rife of politicians and businesses who have, in Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s words, “discounted the future in place of the present.” Dealing with climate change requires long-term planning and a transformation of lifestyles. Action is hampered by political cycles and people who think we can simply “trade our way out of climate change.” Christopher Wright from the University of Sydney explained how advanced economies have failed to act because neoliberalism both masks capitalism as the problem and exacerbates it by framing business and markets as the solution. Regulatory intervention and promotion of renewables are options, but highly unlikely on a global scale. Rather, he sees divestment and social mobilisation as the most productive paths for society to disrupt the status quo discourse.

Existing international law is also not sufficient to change norms and handle existing crises. Presenters discussed how history has shown that states are not inclined to follow non-binding rules whether or not they relate to fossil fuels. Even when rules are written, such as those around deep sea mining in the Pacific, they are made in the interests of the extractors rather than indigenous and local communities who have rights to their ocean and land.

More questions than answers were posed on the future statehood and rights of those citizens who lose their islands due to climate change. Kiribati and Tuvalu are in line to face these challenges and will rely on goodwill from other nation-states. How will they retain the connection to their culture and sovereignty if their land disappears? New Zealand’s temporary visa scheme is a step forward, but not a permanent solution.

So while problems of political will that stunted progress in climate change work are still present, they are mitigated by airing them out in the open and enabling discussion of alternative solutions.

There is a great and urgent need for action and research on all fronts (top-down and bottom-up, adaptation and mitigation) in the Pacific. The Conference provided hope that there will be more roles, voices, capacity-building, and legal debates for the Pacific.

Participation from political leaders like Samoa Prime Minister Prime Minister Susuga Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, NZ Minister for Climate Change, Hon. James Shaw, NZ Minister for Pacific Peoples, Hon. Aupito Tofae Su’a William Sio, Papua New Guinea Provincial Governor Hon. Gary Juffa alongside grassroots activists the Pacific Climate Warriors, 5 Gyres, Tina Ngata, and well-known researchers Dr. Michael Mann, Aroha Te Pareake Mead, and others showed the real depth of commitment and knowledge in the region.

The Pacific is at the centre of climate change and many participants called for more research for the region and by local experts and communities. It is needed not just for the Pacific islands, but also to monitor things like sea level rise for the rest of the world. Because, as Prime Minister of Tuvalu says, “save Tuvalu and you will save the world.”

Like a Puffin in Winter: Escape to the Faroe Islands

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In my return to the blogosphere in 2018, I am breaking from my traditional posts. This time, I wanted to share more personal story (mainly photos), from my time in a remote archipelago in the Northern Atlantic, far from the Pacific. Tourists to the Faroe Islands are rare in winter, as many places are closed until spring or even summer. But, with time on our hands and travel plans taking us to Europe from Sydney, I decided this would be our moment to experience the unspoiled beauty and history of the Faroe Islands.

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Map of the Faroe Islands; credit: Mysid

Some Background

The Faroe Islands are a self-governing nation with autonomous powers and responsibilities within the Kingdom of Denmark. With a population of almost 50,000 people, and about halfway between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands have been touted as “Europe’s best kept secret.” It has always been a tourist destination for bird lovers; for our adventure, we wanted to hike, explore Viking history, and enjoy fresh seafood. Compared to Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, Viking sites are not as prolific or promoted. And more so than tourism, the fisheries sector is critical to the nation’s economy and way of life.

Since the late 19th century, fishing has been the primary source of income for the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands has strict regulations on its fish farming industry, with the goal of creating the most sustainable production in the world. Overall, fish and fish products represent between 90 and 95 percent of total export value. We ate cod dried and fried, salmon smoked, and miscellaneous fish pâté. We were unable to find and try other local delicacies, including fermented sheep, puffin, and whale.

Day 1 – Vágar, Streymoy & Eysturoy

Travel options into the Faroe Islands are relatively limited; particularly during winter, flights typically arrive and depart when there is the most daylight, between 12-2pm. We flew from Copenhagen; in winter, there are also flights from Iceland and Scotland. For those adventure-seekers with a lot of time, there is a ferry that takes more than a day of travel from Denmark or Iceland. Shopping at the duty free store at the airport is essential, because stores can be few and far between. I recommend stocking up on Föroya Bjór beers, which are brewed locally.

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For our first tourist site, we went to perhaps the most famous photo opportunity – Gásadalur – to view the Mulafossur Waterfall and the island of Mykines from afar. Gásadalur has only a handful of houses and a small parking lot for tourists making the walk. Mykines is an uninhabited island reachable by ferry. It is known for being an important puffin colony, but not during the winter.

Originally we tried to pack a lot of adventure into day 1, but winter daylight hours got in the way.

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From Gásadalur, we drove across increasingly dark, icy roads to the next island of Eysturoy to visit the Vestmanna Saga Museum. The museum was supposed to be closed for winter, but we arranged with the owner, Gunnar, to have it opened just for us. Arriving late and with no working phone, it was lucky that we found a friendly local originally from Australia who happened to know Gunnar and gave him a call. The Saga Museum was a gruesome experience, not for the faint-hearted or small children. Wax figurines detail important and gruesome historical events in the history of the Faroe Islands, including the country’s conversion to Christianity.

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Vestmanna Saga Museum

Next we drove to our accommodation in Leirvik. Without navigation or access to Google maps, we asked for directions at the local petrol/grocery store to our street. While the attendant couldn’t help us, one of the fellow shoppers was kind enough to drive us to the house. Our VisitHomes accommodation came with a 15% coupon for the Bowling Alley – which was the only restaurant open in winter! They served up huge portions of local fried cod and chips. 

Day 2 – Eysturoy

To maximise our daylight, we left Leirvik before the sun came up at 9am. We attempted to drive to Slættaratindur to climb the highest mountain in the Faroe Islands (882 m). From the top there is apparently a fantastic view of all the Faroes, and locals traditionally do this hike every year (in warmer months). Unfortunately, at a key turnoff, the road was iced over, with a sign warning the road isn’t cleared during the winter. Without chains for our tires, we didn’t risk driving up the mountain.

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Next we drove north to the east coast town of Gjogv, which dates to the late 1500s or earlier. Its name translates to “gorge” because there is a 200m gorge that runs through it. There was an old church (like in every town) dated from 1929, and a factory producing prefabricated concrete materials. It looked like the sheep ran the town, with almost no one else outside except for a couple of factory workers. We trekked up the side of a mountain, to enjoy the view, and to the beach. The one cafe in town said it was closed until June, but they did have a public water closet open.

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A Note about Driving

To drive in the Faroe Islands, you need to be attentive to the elements: the wind, hail, roads weaving left and right, sheep crossings, giving way in tight, dark tunnels, and distractions from the amazing views. Particularly around Funningsfjørður, where there are mountains in all directions. We used Unicar to rent a Citroen Cactus; for two people and a few days, it was perfect. Tire chains might have been helpful, but they also could have gotten us into unnecessary trouble.

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We picked our next location based on the extremely helpful Visit Faroe Islands guides. We hiked for several hours, starting from the grassy land in Hellurnar up to snowy terrain and the top where we could see over to Fuglafjørður. The grassy portion was dominated by sheep (and their droppings). It was challenging at times, as we faced hail, icy rock scrambles, and snow. We encountered only one other couple hiking in the opposite direction, which made it slightly easier to find the path via footsteps in the snow. From the top of the first section, we could see salmon fish farms, common in many towns.

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Salmon Farming in the Faroe Islands

The seas surrounding the Faroe Islands are perfect for wild Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) from northern Europe, with steady cool temperatures, clean water, accessible fjords, and strong currents. The production is in average around 50,000 tons of farmed fish in round weight. In almost every suitable bay you can find farming like in the picture above.The Faroese aquaculture industry accounts for more than half of the country’s total export value, and produces the most salmon relative to the population with 1.5 tonnes per capita. There are 3 main companies producing salmon in the Faroe Islands – Bakkafrost, Marine Harvest, and Hiddenfjord. We enjoyed the local smoked salmon.

 

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Before nightfall, we drove to the southern end of Eysturoy to Runavik to see Lake Toftavatn. We didn’t have enough daylight or energy to go for a walk around the lake, so snapped a quick photo.

Day 3 – Viðoy, Borðoy, Kunoy, Eysturoy, & Streymoy

For our final full day, we started by driving to the northernmost settlement in the Faroe Islands, Vidareidi on the island of Viðoy and watched the sunrise.

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According to Visit Faroe Islands, “In the 16th century Viðareiði was home to a fabled priest’s wife, Beinta. This woman is a primary inspiration for the main character in Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen’s novel, Barbara. Because of the vicarage’s historical placement in Viðareiði, the village has been a cultural centre for the north-eastern part of the Northern Isles through centuries.”

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Perhaps my favourite juncture was the crossing between Norðdepil on and Hvannasund on Viðoy.

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Traveling south from Viðoy, we went to Klaksvík on the island of Borðoy for a hearty sheep stew at Fríða’s. Klaksvík is the second largest town, which has Viking-era remains at Úti í Grøv.

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From there, we drove back to Leirvik to see the four buildings of ruins of Toftanes, which date to the early 10th century. The largest building was a 72-foot longhouse shared by animals and humans, once covered by a roof of turf and birch bark. There was also a smaller house, 43 feet by 13 feet, with a single wall of stone, and two smaller buildings. Many of the thousands of artifacts found at Toftanes are displayed at the Historical Museum; some items include: bowls, glass and amber beads, juniper ropes and rare bronze items, including a brooch and a pin.

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Just before sunset, we made it into Tórshavn for our final night. Historic sites included the area known as the Tinganes, the site of the oldest parliament in the world (dated 825) and Skansin, a fortress dated from around 1508.  

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The downtown is very walkable, with many boutique shops.

Music in the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands has one record label, Tutl, founded in 1977 and a thriving music scene (I’m told) mainly in the summer. The G! Music Festival is one of the most popular. At the Tutl record store in Tórshavn, the attendant helped us with recommendations and played some local records over the store speakers. We already knew about the folk metal band Tyr, so were looking for something different. We came across a music video by the band Hamferð, and were excited to find their music in store. You can read more about music in the Faroe Islands here.

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Tutl Store in Tórshavn

We were planning to try Barbara’s Fish House for dinner, but it was closed for winter; so, we opted for smorgasbords.

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Day 4 – Streymoy & Vágar

For our last activity, we drove out of Tórshavn, south west to Kirkjubøur, one of the Faroe Islands’ most important historic places and the southernmost town on Streymoy. Ruins from the unfinished Magnus Cathedral date from about 1300, and it is the largest medieval building in the Faroe Islands. Saint Olav’s Church is the oldest still used church of the Faroes dating from 12th century. Finally, Kirkjubøargarður, is the oldest still inhabited wooden house in the world from the 11th century.

One of my photos of our stop in Kirkjubøur was featured on the cover of the Bush Telegraph, our local community magazine.

People of the Faroe Islands

While they are not present in my holiday photos, we met very friendly, courteous people across the Faroe Islands. The first person we met in the country happened to be a woman from Australia, and the next person was a Faroese man who had lived in Sydney and brought back an Australian wife. That was a little striking given that almost 90 percent of the population are native Faroese, descendants from the Norse (Scandinavian and Gaelic) that settled the islands in the 9th century AD. Danes compose the largest non-native population at 7%, with less than 3% of the total made up by nationalities of more than 80 countries [Philippines (0.34%) Icelanders (0.33%), Thai (0.23%) Norwegians (0.19%), and so on]. The small number of new immigrants is a point of curiosity as SBS in Australia and the BBC have reported “women wanted in the Faroes.” Many Faroese women left during a recession in the 1990s and youth often leave for university in Denmark; the reports tell of women who immigrated for love and life on the archipelago. The population reached a milestone of 50,000 people in 2017.

Departing the Faroe Islands, we were reminded of the importance of the fishing industry, and salmon in particular. We watched as cases and cases of fresh salmon were loaded onto the SAS Airways flight. There was so much salmon that our flight was delayed!

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To close, a legend about the water elf, Nykin, that lived in Lake Toftavatn. The story goes, it rose up from the waters in the form of a young man or a horse that lured young women and children. Those that touched the Nykin were caught and dragged into the water. Experiencing the Faroese landscape and changing, misty weather, you can get drawn in and wonder what lies before you. Trolls, spirits, or just another sheep?