By Ron Rocky Coloma
Leaders from 13 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) met in Bangkok in October to work out the details of a major Global Plastics Treaty that could help save their shores from the growing tide of plastic waste.
As SIDS like Fiji, Maldives and Palau face a future where ocean plastics could quadruple, their leaders are urgently discussing solutions at the Economist Impact’s Global Plastics Summit.
With the support of the social enterprise Common Seas, island leaders are focusing on practical steps, such as making companies more responsible for their plastic waste and encouraging the use of reusable containers.
The gathering is crucial as it sets the stage for even bigger talks in Nairobi this month, where the world's nations will try to finalize a plan to tackle the plastic pollution that's threatening our oceans. In September, the United Nations introduced an initial version, referred to as the Zero Draft, of the Plastics Treaty.
Common Seas is actively involved in addressing the single-use plastic issue in SIDS.
“Across the island nations where Common Seas work, we are often told that Small Island States have difficulty with managing the safe disposal of plastic waste through existing waste management systems,” said Jo Royl, CEO and Founder of Common Seas. “Due to island nations often being remote locations, recycling is often unviable and many existing landfill sites are approaching capacity.
“To overcome these challenges, we look towards upstream policies that reduce plastic production and consumption and turn off pollution at the sources,” he added. “The strategies we propose are based on policies that have been successfully deployed and developed ‘on the ground.’”
For example, Common Seas supported NGO "Zero Waste Maldives" to install water refill stations, targeting areas of high consumption like the sporting complex in the capital of Male and promoting behavior change through public communications. Each water station is metered to allow the use and number of avoided plastic bottles to be calculated.
To ensure Common Seas is developing the right plastic reduction and waste management tools in any country, they always begin by implementing their bespoke tool, Plastic Drawdown. This is a unique rapid-assessment tool they developed in consultation with 24 governments, more than half of whom are SIDS. The Plastic Drawdown methodology is endorsed by the United Nations and was published in the Global Environmental Change Journal.
This tool helps people understand a country’s plastic problem, the potential solutions and establish national baseline data quickly, even in a low-data environment.
Common Seas then uses this data to measure the success of the policies, while equipping governments with the knowledge of the policies needed to create robust National Action Plans.
The role of refill and reuse schemes in the efforts to reduce plastic consumption and waste in the Pacific Islands is important.
Water refill schemes work by promoting the use of reusable water bottles to reduce plastic pollution generated by single-use plastic bottles of water.
Refill stations can be installed in public areas, such as schools, parks and public transportation hubs – or alternatively in public sector buildings (e.g., town halls, libraries, and local businesses), where the public can access free or low-cost drinking water to fill up their reusable bottles.
“This policy is a win-win for the consumer and the environment,” Royle said. “Reports have estimated that drinking the recommended eight glasses of water per day equals about $0.49 per year with tap water but costs approximately $1,400 with bottled water.
“Studies have also shown that water refill schemes can reduce plastic beverage bottle waste by anywhere between 5 and 35 percent,” he added.
Pacific Islanders share a great determination to eliminate plastic pollution, and Common Seas saw this commitment from both leaders and local communities.
For example, Majuro, the capital city of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, has battled with a waste disposal epidemic. It is estimated that Majuro generates about 7.2 tonnes of residential waste per day and 13.2 tonnes of commercial waste per day. The main dumpsite at Jable–Batkan has exceeded its design capacity, and some 56,600 cubic meters of waste is stored at the dumpsite, which is prone to flooding, resulting in pollution of the surrounding marine environment.
In 2018, the Marshall Islands introduced a legislative Deposit Return Scheme, targeting PET beverage bottles, aluminum cans, and glass bottles. The deposit was set at $0.06, of which $0.05 is returned to the consumer when they bring the container to one of two manual collection centers, both operated by the public sector. The remaining $0.01 is taken as a handling fee to fund the operation of the scheme.
“The first year of the scheme saw a return rate of 109 percent, which is likely due to high returns of non-DRS bottles bought before the scheme, and the excellent commitment of the nation to reducing plastic waste,” Royle said. “This is just one example of a Pacific Island nation paving the way against the global plastic problem.”
However, SIDS are disproportionately affected by plastic pollution. Alongside the plastic waste generated by their own citizens and visitors, plastic produced by other nations enters their waters and washes up on beaches.
This in turn is harming efforts to transition to a sustainable blue economy and the islands’ pristine image that attracts tourists and investment.
Now more than ever before, SIDS requires the judicious execution of ambitious and well-designed policies to reduce the plastic pollution that proves so damaging to people and the planet.
This includes starting with accurate plastic reporting data so countries can measure the success of policies, track reductions in plastic consumption and understand any changes.
Through effective, consistent reporting, countries can remain accountable for their plastic consumption and work consistently for substantial change.
Furthermore, a key strategy is to work across the plastic value chain. Plastic transcends government departments and even economic sectors and requires a collaborative approach with actors across the value chain in order to have long-standing effects.
“Through our research at Common Seas, we believe it is imperative that the treaty caps plastic production, bans toxic and hazardous plastics and makes polluting companies responsible for their products throughout their lifecycle,” Royle said. “This will ensure the responsibility is with plastic polluters, rather than island states who produce very little plastic waste.
“Small Island Developing States make up 20 percent of the UN votes,” he added. “Their influence in Nairobi will be fundamental to creating an effective treaty with legally binding plastic reduction measures that put the struggles of island nations first.”