For Clean Islands and a Clean Ocean in the Pacific, Start with Solid Waste Management

To keep Pacific islands in pristine condition, action must be taken at multiple levels. Photo: ADB
To keep Pacific islands in pristine condition, action must be taken at multiple levels. Photo: ADB

By Jingmin Huang

Solid waste challenges in the Pacific must be addressed at the island, regional, and ocean level.

Pacific island nations are becoming overwhelmed by solid waste. A range of materials including used packaging, plastics, batteries, e-waste, and abandoned vehicles are accumulating on the islands and polluting the surrounding ocean.

Major driving factors include growing volumes of waste and unique barriers to collecting, recycling, and disposing of it.

Growing volumes of waste are largely due to globalization, changing lifestyles, and urbanization. Most Pacific islands are heavily reliant on imported goods, which creates a one-way flow of materials into the small countries. In addition, the Pacific island nations are extremely vulnerable to severe weather events and the impacts of climate change, which can generate large volumes of waste, such as fallen trees and debris following cyclones.

The pandemic has further exacerbated solid waste challenges. Heightened concern for hygiene has led to a large increase in medical waste and the prevalence of single-use plastics, such as personal protective equipment, face masks, and individual food packaging.

As solid waste volumes continue to grow, Pacific island nations are struggling to manage it. Limited capacity to dispose of solid waste is linked to geographical isolation, limited available land for waste management facilities, high costs of providing collection and disposal services to small and dispersed populations, and small economies of scale.

Overcoming these challenges requires addressing solid waste management at the local, regional, and ocean levels.

Local solutions should focus on reducing the volume of solid waste, increasing collection service, and strengthening disposal systems.

With respect to reducing the amount of solid waste, community leaders can target public behavior change with a focus on the “reduce, reuse, recycle”, or the “3Rs”, principle. Building this ideology into communities, and especially into the younger generation, can significantly reduce waste.

Disposal methods also need change. Many Pacific countries have basic solid waste collection systems and landfills. However, the lack of suitable space for landfills, and limited soil to cover them up (especially on atolls), often leads to overloaded landfills and open dumping—piled-up garbage is often washed directly into the ocean or rivers.

To extend the lifespan of existing landfills, the volume of collected waste needs to be reduced. Carefully monitored and regulated incineration provides an effective and efficient means to manage hazardous medical waste during the pandemic, and may become increasingly important as land constraints affect island waste disposal. Integrated solid waste management at the local level is key to reducing waste entering oceans and building up recycling capacity to feed into regional efforts.

The pandemic has further exacerbated solid waste challenges.

Stakeholders should consider two complementary approaches at the regional level—establishing a network to support financially efficient waste recovery and recycling, and aligning policies where feasible.

Many of the Pacific island countries have adopted policy mechanisms to finance improved waste management and to equitably distribute costs. Examples include advanced disposal fees, environmental taxes, and user-pays or pay-as-you-go fees.

Regional cooperation can help unify rules on the types of products and packaging that enters the region. Such agreements can support the island nations in meeting multilateral environmental agreements, and may attract regional development partner funding.

With respect to recycling programs, it is important to note that global markets for recycled waste are highly volatile. As a result, the profitability of small recycling markets in the region is likely to fluctuate.

Establishing a regional recycling network can increase economies of scale, help  make recycling a more economically viable solution, and attract private sector involvement. A regional solid waste management network can help meet economic, social, and environmental objectives—starting with high-value waste, such as abandoned cars and tires, and scaling up over time.

Together, unified waste policies, regulations, and a sustainable recycling network at the regional level can empower the Pacific islands to expand integrated solid waste management to the ocean level.

The Pacific islands are heavily impacted by oceanic solid waste originating from polluters in other countries. As a result, the ocean approach may seek to attract blue finance from international polluters, and leverage it to support ocean waste management across the region.

An ocean approach to solid waste management should seek to bring together national, regional, and international actors to reduce the growing amount of solid waste—and plastic in particular— in the Pacific Ocean. Large-scale plastics removal and recovery can have significant ecosystem, health, and economic benefits; and the Pacific islands are well-placed to act as hubs for waste collection and transportation.

Regional coordination to address oceanic health can help Pacific island countries to access a range of financing from international donors and large companies delivering blue finance under their corporate social responsibility commitments. The oceans approach can provide access financial resources from the private sector, put them to use removing plastic and other solid waste from the ocean, and shift the region to a circular economy.

Cleaner islands and oceans can deliver multiple co-benefits. Proper solid waste management can help prevent infectious and vector diseases, such as dengue, which often comes from landfills and causes deaths in the islands each year. Addressing solid waste challenges can also promote ocean health and restore natural scenery—both of which are critical for tourism and economic growth.

If Pacific island nations can address solid waste challenges at the island, regional, and ocean level, they increase the likelihood of rebounding strongly from the pandemic and will increase their overall resilience to climate change.