Vanuatu significantly reduces plastic pollution

As residents struggled to clear Vanuatu waters of plastic, the country’s leaders explored another solution: stopping the waste at its source.

For generations, the residents of Erakor village in Vanuatu enjoyed swimming in their local lagoon. Ken Andrew, a village chief, recalls diving as a child and chasing fish in its turquoise waters.

That was many years ago. Now 52, Andrew has observed a troubling new presence in the lagoon: plastic. “The plastic would form a small island inside the lagoon, it was so thick,” Andrew recalls. “We used fishing nets to remove some of the trash, but we didn’t know how to get rid of it all. There was just too much.”

Small island nations like Vanuatu face unique challenges with plastic pollution. Reliant on imported goods, they receive vast amounts of plastic packaging daily. Ocean currents also bring plastic waste from around the world to their shores. With inadequate recycling or waste management facilities, rubbish often gets burned or washes up in places like Erakor lagoon. Pacific countries produce about 1 kg of waste per person daily, 40% more than the global average.

To drastically reduce waste, Vanuatu’s government banned the sale and distribution of certain single-use plastics in 2018, including a world-first ban on plastic straws.

The results have been impressive. Thin plastic shopping bags are now rare, with most people using reusable bags. Food at festivals is often wrapped in banana leaves instead of polystyrene boxes. Items that used to account for 35% of Vanuatu’s waste now make up less than 2%. The plastic islands that once choked Erakor lagoon are shrinking.

“Since the ban started, the lagoon has become cleaner,” says Andrew.

This success for the small island nation of over 300,000 people across 83 islands began with a Facebook post by a French immigrant, Christelle Thieffry.

Thieffry, who arrived in Vanuatu over 20 years ago, was disgusted by the plastic littering the skies. In March 2017, she and her husband created a Facebook page called “no plastic bag, please” and started a petition to ban single-use plastic bags. A few weeks later, the petition had 2,000 signatures and was mentioned by the prime minister in a speech.

“It felt amazing and quite magical,” Thieffry says. “They sent a strong message that Vanuatu needed to save turtles and fish and not have plastics flying around.”

The petition eventually reached then-foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu, who developed and implemented the policy, which included fines of at least 20,000 vatu (£130) for violations—a significant sum for many locals.

In 2020, a second phase added seven more items to the list of banned plastics, including cutlery, single-use plates, and artificial flowers.

“It’s quite difficult to enforce due to the low capacity of the environment department,” Regenvanu says. “So we work with municipal authorities, customs, and others.”

There were compromises, though. Fishers can still use plastic for wrapping and transporting their produce, and plastic bottles are allowed, despite often littering coastlines and rivers.

Secondary industries have emerged to provide sustainable alternatives. On Pentecost island, communities have started using biodegradable pots made from native pandanus leaves instead of plastic ones. Mama’s Laef, a social enterprise, expanded its range from fabric sanitary napkins to reusable nappies and bags.

“We came up with these ideas to reduce the amount of plastic in Vanuatu,” says owner Jack Kalsrap. “We’re a small island state, so pollution can overwhelm us more than bigger countries.”

Adapting to the ban hasn’t been easy for everyone. In local markets, vendors and customers once freely used plastic bags. Anna George, a vendor, says many have tried weaving sustainable bags from coconut or pandanus leaves. However, “there’s nothing else like plastic,” she says. If a cyclone destroys the leaves, they have to buy bags for 20 vatu from the store.

Although plastic bag pollution has reduced, plastic waste still impacts Vanuatu’s environment, and swimming is no longer allowed in Erakor lagoon due to pollution.

Willy Sylverio, a coordinator of the Erakor Bridge Youth Association, seeks ways to recycle the litter his team collects from the lagoon. “The majority of the plastic waste now comes from noodle packaging, rice packaging, or biscuit packets,” Sylverio says. He hopes the plastic ban will eventually cover all packaging of imported goods. “Banning all plastic is a great idea, because it blocks the main road through which our environment is polluted.”

The Vanuatu government plans to expand the ban to include disposable nappies and will introduce a plastic bottle deposit scheme this year to help recycle remaining plastic waste.

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