Waste: Why the individuals are not the ones to blame

There tends to be accusatory tones whenever we talk about people who throw away plastic bags, straws or any other disposable plastic products in public places.  

There also tends to be a disdain if not downright disgust for individuals who casually throw plastic into the ocean. Our people. Samoans. People from the sun, as Jerome Grey once famously sang. 

But – despite the fact that indeed each individual is responsible for their actions and that it is an outright disregard for nature and our environment, it is not entirely their fault. Now, just bear with me as I make this point.

If you have observed the type of plastics that are strewn in public places, they usually contain disposable items used to package cooked food, drinks or everyday items. They are things like styrofoam plates, plastic cups with straws, plastic bags, bottles, cans, plastic knives and forks and packaging for items such as cookies, chips and hygiene products such as soaps, deodorants, and so forth.

These are items casually disposed on the road, by a side walk, on the seawall, by a river, under a tree, in a bush, by members of the public who are eating in public places or in their cars or in their offices and so forth.

Each persons decision to throw an item to the ground – is a conscious one based on their upbringing, based on what they have observed and what is socially acceptable in our society, for us, it is socially acceptable to throw trash on the ground, to dump it in the area behind your house, whether it be ocean, bush or river. We were conditioned way before plastics came to take pride in our front of house. “Fa’amama luma fale” (clean up the front of the house). 

The trash, as long as it is hidden and carefully disposed of away from the eyes of our guests, of the village and of passers-by, then we have achieved our cultural conditioning to waste management. There is a perception that what can’t be seen will not affect us.

What is not on our land, or visible to others, will not harm us. This practice was absolutely fine when it was just grass cuttings, the breadfruit leaves, the frangipani and hibiscus branches and the odd stray leaf on our grounds, but the landscape has changed, “waste” has evolved, and we are dealing with waste that will never break down.

In many Samoan homes, as children, many contribute to picking up the rubbish around the house, burning the leaves and ensuring this is done in a consistent manner to keep up the clean appearance of ones yard. At school, we take machetes, we have weekly clean-ups, like we did in both Primary and Secondary School in Savaii. We are asked to pick up rubbish in the morning and after school, to maintain the grounds. 

At Church, the members and village all come together to clean up the Church grounds, and maintain the yard to ensure that it is clean. Waste is disposed of, usually behind the Church or behind the Faifeaus house.

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All these approaches however indicate a “collective” approach waste management or cleaning. The reasons we do it are for aesthetic purposes and to exhibit pride of place. It was never about the environment, it always was about how things looked. In Church, school, village and home, we are doing it for the sake of our group and not for the sake of the individual and least of all for the environment.

School, Church and village require cleaning up not for the sake of our environment, but for the sake of pride. So, as individuals, we perceive the environment as something to be cleaned for appearances sake, but not for its protection. 

We are taught to view cleaning as a group, through Church, village, family and school, but not as an individual.

So when the worker, in town, who left their village eats their SAT$5.00 lunch in a foam plate, with two plastic cutleries in a small plastic wrapper, throws these items on the ground, or in the ocean by the seawall after they eat, they are not necessarily thinking of the harm this plastic will do to the fish or turtles, they are merely doing what they have observed through life, disposing of waste in whatever means available at that time.

It’s easy to think that they perceive town as something that is not their responsibility, after all, it is not their land, it is not their school, it is not their Church, it is not their home.

The waste management issue in Samoa is not an individual’s problem, it is not the entire fault of the person who throws their plastics out of the bus or out of the Lady Samoa.

It is a failure of the system they grew up in, to equip individuals with understanding of the harm of their actions, to take responsibility for their actions and to understand cause and effect. 

This is a systemic problem, one that is inherent in the overall system, rather than due to individuals, or specific, isolated factors.

A change in our perceptions of waste, in our perceptions of our environment, of living things outside of ourselves, and our responsibility to nature is an important shift that we need to make from very early on in the life of every Samoan.

We need a massive shift in our thinking, and this can be brought about by education, family upbringing and faith-based learning. It is only when we perceive waste management as an environmental issue and a social responsibility, can we then make a long-lasting change.

The plastic-ban is one such change, and an important systemic approach – that will have long lasting impacts, in the banning of straws and plastic bags. But those are just two of the thousands of disposable items we use on a daily basis, so while the ban is a good legal intervention, what we really require now to save our island ecosystems is a system approach to educate responsible citizens, starting from our parents, to teachers to preachers to village leaders. 

We need our children to grown up with a passion and understanding for how our individual actions contribute to a greater problem.

As a Christian nation, viewing nature as a gift from God, and us as protectors of that gift, is an important and valuable perspective that should be reiterated not just in schools, but in Churches and villages, to ensure that we do justice to the land we have been bestowed by our ancestors.

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