UN report says tourists one of main drivers of Pacific garbage problem
The rapidly expanding tourism and environmental protection make up a zero-sum game. This predicament looms to be a permanent conflict in small Pacific islands, where increased tourism brings along a tremendous amount of wastes that are not properly managed on the local level.
With poorly planned landfills and lack of recycling program in the Pacific, much of the waste is burnt, buried in illegal landfills or dumped, and about 80 percent ends up in the oceans, according to a UN report released in April.
The report’s author, Dr. Jeff Seadon of the Auckland University of Technology, found that tourists are significant generators of waste in the Pacific region. Compared to the average 2.5kg of waste generated by a local every day, a tourist typically generates more than 7kg of waste.
Pacific islands rely on pristine beaches to attract tourists, but with marine litter deposits, the viability of this industry is endangered, Seadon said. “Coastal tourism represents a significant source of litter, aggravated by poor waste management practices and a lack of resources in some jurisdictions,” he added.
The impact of growing tourism on environment is highlighted in the United Nations Environment Program: Small Island Developing States: Waste Management Outlook report, which investigated waste management in island states across the Atlantic, Indian, Mediterranean Oceans, the South China Sea region, the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Besides land tourism, diving and cruises also pose a significant stress on natural resources, the report said. “Without a proper waste management system, solid waste and wastewater from cruise ships and yachts, as well as waste from hotels, are disposed in dumps on the islands or discharged into the surrounding seas,” the report states.
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The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is an instrument that is relevant to the environmentally sound management of such wastes, but there is still the issue of the quantities of these wastes that a tourismcentric economy generates, including ship-generated wastes.”
The research noted a disconnect between the industry stakeholders and those tasked with managing waste. “Industry by and large is not doing anything. It's still very much in the too hard basket,” Seadon stated in the report. “The marketing of programs that offset carbon emissions from tourism activities is still in its infancy while eco-tourism is still a largely unexplored subsection of the market.”
While many tourism-centric economies cater to the higher end of the market resulting in large ecological footprints from waste production, water use, energy generation and dependence on imported goods, Seadon said, most islands do not have the infrastructure to manage this imported waste. "This is common for the Pacific, it's common across the Caribbean, across the other small island developing states - so it's a world-wide problem."
While SIDS’ waste management-related issues are not uncommon within global trends, Seadon noted that their locations and environmental sensitivity often intensify the impacts of waste, creating complicated situations that require innovation, collaboration and regional solutions.
One of the more comprehensive regional initiatives cited in the report is the Cleaner Pacific 2025, which aligns waste and pollution activities to other priority development areas that are common across many island nations, such as climate change, biodiversity conservation, agricultural development and tourism development.
Compared to the average 2.5kg of waste generated by a local every day, a tourist typically generates more than 7kg of waste.
“This alignment is a proven way to advance waste management with the added benefits of cross-sector and multi-stakeholder engagement, increasing understanding and buy-in toward waste initiatives,” the report said.
The report, however, noted that financial challenges to institute and maintain integrated waste management program that lead to a circular economy are a major hindrance to progress. “It is common for government departments to be adequately resourced to pass legislation, but there is often no ongoing finance to assist with implementation,” the report said. “The success of waste development policies is underpinned by economic considerations ranging from effective budget allocations in the public sector to creating an enabling business environment for the private sector.”
Seadon’s report recommended levying environmental taxes on tourists. “This is seen as a circular action in which a properly managed waste management system attracts more visitors, which then generates extra revenue from the levy.”
An alternative is to attach a levy on waste generation, based on volume or weight. This method operates as a behavior control mechanism – the more waste a person (or company) generates, the more that party must pay to manage it. A decrease in the amount of waste means that there is less income, but also less to manage.
The report also recommended taxes on cruise ship passengers to create funds to manage waste generated by cruise ships. This tax proposal, Seadon noted, has been generally resisted by cruise ship operators in the Caribbean as SIDS compete to attract tourists. “Cruise ship operators have significant influence since, if one island does not perform as expected, there is another nearby island that is ready to meet their demands,” Seadon said. “A regional or SIDS-wide approach to address this issue might be beneficial.”
While the costs of financing waste development policies can be high, Seadon warned that the often invisible costs of inaction are considerably greater. “Waste management affects all aspects of society such as public health, the economy, industry, environment, climate change and disasters," he said.