Where does waste go on a small island?

Posted on Nov 19 2019

Behind a family home not far from downtown Apia, a small mountain of computer cases teeters in the tropical sun at over 3 meters high. Nearby, stacks of thousands of circuit boards create rolling green foothills. Steel drums, plastic buckets and fraying carboard boxes dot this electronic landscape—overflowing reservoirs of connectors, transistors and wires.

A practiced and callused hand is nearby, forcibly and systematically ripping apart an old computer body with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver, scattering electronic paraphernalia in all directions.

“He’s dismantled thousands of computers in the last couple years,” says Marina Keil, the president of the Samoa Recycling and Waste Management Association, gesturing at the piles surrounding us. “He could do more, but he’d need power tools. Ever since we started importing electronics into Samoa, we’ve never had any leave. But only 5 to 10% of e-waste comes to recyclers like this. The rest goes into landfill. Unfortunately, e-waste takes a lot of time and requires a lot of manual labor to process.”

Across town, Keil leads us into the office of one of Samoa’s three waste tire collectors. Out back the collector has his own waste mountain. Some 10,000 tires are piled high. He has collected these for the last 10 years but has had to recently stop stockpiling these waste tires—he has run out of space.

A few kilometers away, the manager of an auto repair shop is facing a similar problem, but with oil. Behind the repair bays there are dozens of barrels of old oil sitting under a corrugated aluminum roof. He has stockpiled it because there is nowhere for it to go.

“Waste oil has been accumulating for forever,” Keil says. “Across Samoa, there is some 400,000 liters of stockpiled engine oil sitting around. Currently everyone is stockpiling. Some illegally dump it. It’s just sitting here with nowhere to go.”

Samoa is facing a problem that plagues small islands states—where does all the waste go?

“Here in Samoa and other islands as well there’s no recycling that goes on. Pretty much we collect and process it for export to countries overseas,” Keil says. “But it’s hard for us to export because of the operational and the freight cost.”

It is precisely this obstacle that a new partnership called Moana Taka is designed to tackle. The partnership between the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme and China Navigation Company, part of the Swire Group, provides a way to offload recyclable waste from Samoa and other Pacific countries to recycling facilities abroad. The UN Environment Programme helped facilitate the agreement.

“It’s an exciting public-private partnership,” says Sefanaia Nawadra, the Head of UNEP’s Pacific Office. “Pacific island countries that cannot store or treat waste properly and are unable to afford to ship recyclable waste can use Swire vessels to transport it to ports where these facilities exist—for free. It’s a great example of cooperation between governments, civil society and the private sector.”

Waste such as plastics, aluminum cans, oil and ozone depleting substances are all eligible for transport under the partnership.

There are 21 countries and territories participating: American Samoa, Cook Islands, Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Wallis and Futuna.

So far, Pacific island nations have been able to send over 100 tons of waste to be recycled through the Moana Taka partnership.

Certain obstacles remain.

“We’re lucky to be part of the Moana Taka initiative,” says Keil. “Freight is one of the problems, but collection of things like waste oil is also an issue. Another one is identifying companies and facilities offshore that can take these wastes for safe recycling and disposal. We’ve been lucky to have the help of UNEP in that.”

UNEP has also provided 100 waste oil collection sites and is working to support collection of other types of waste. UNEP is using its networks especially in Asia to identify waste recycling companies and facilities to work with the Moana Taka Partnership.

But attitudes and behaviors still need to change, says Keil. “99.5% of plastic bottles go to landfill. Many Samoans grew up burning rubbish. In the long run, we need sustainable solutions.

“It’s important that we teach our young ones the 3 Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—and when they grow up they’ll make better green choices.” (www.unenvironment.org)

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