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.”