Conservationists back styrofoam ban delay

Conservationists are backing a decision to postpone a nationwide ban on polystyrene packaging to go into effect on Friday, saying businesses need time to adjust if the ban is to achieve its aims effectively. 

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (M.N.R.E.) has given businesses another six months to prepare for the ban. This decision was taken largely to allow them to exhaust existing supplies of stock and to begin the process to import or make alternatives.

The President of the Samoa Conservation Society, James Atherton, said while the delay is disappointing, he hopes the extra time will make the ban more successful when implemented. 

“We live in a country where people are struggling financing so we have to take into account those kinds of economic issues,” he said.

“Of course we don’t want more plastics in the lagoon and in the food chain, but at the same time we have got to understand there are other issues here.”

Mr. Atherton said he hopes there won’t be another delay on the ban come June when the ban has been rescheduled for:

“I do think it’s important when they do implement the ban that it is going to work, there is no point pushing it through and it fails […] I am taking a pragmatic approach here.

“But the onus is not only on the vendors, it’s also on the public to be thinking about how they shouldn’t be buying that anyway. The next six months is an opportunity to ramp up awareness and get everybody on board so that by the time the ban is actually enforced fully it will become part of people’s thinking anyway.”

While alternatives to the polystyrene food packaging are being sought, trialed and refilling shelves, Mr. Atherton wants people to think more about ceasing to use single use packaging wherever possible. 

Buying takeaways with one’s own cup, box, plate or cutlery is a more long-term solution to food industry waste, he argues. 

“Move away for single use anything,” he said. 

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme's (S.P.R.E.P.) Pollution Advisor, Anthony Talouli, said while the ban is a step in the right direction, consumer end items are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to waste.

Imported white ware, furniture and electronic goods are all packaged in polystyrene, the use of which is not banned under the new law. 

“We need to hit tourism, manufacturing, packaging, to choose alternatives […] otherwise it is just business as usual," he said. 

Mr. Talouli said the big positive from switching to cardboard or plant based food packages is the impact they will have on landfill. 

Organic and compostable waste which alternate packaging will be composed can be used as landfill cover between layers of rubbish.

In the future, goods could also be diverted into commercial compost, but with Samoa’s agriculture typically not struggling with growth he foresees little demand for such an option. 

“But we do encourage, wherever possible to divert waste from the landfill as much as possible,” he said. 

As well as leading the Samoa Conservation Society, Mr. Atherton and his cousin, Alan Schwalger, have stepped into the alternative dish industry, and make plates, bowls and cutlery from palm leaves for commercial and private use. They are compostable, reusable and as such cannot match the cheap price of less environmentally friendly options.

“The consumer has to get used to paying a bit more and understand that there is a reason for that – the stuff that is more expensive is locally made and may be less damaging,” Mr. Atherton said.

Another local source of alternatives could be found at the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa, which in 2019 announced it was embarking on research into plant-based plastic shopping bags. 

Mr. Talouli said for those like S.R.O.S., the ban opens up several business opportunities for innovation in the food packaging sector, which would help cut down on import costs as well as the environmental impact of shipping goods from overseas.

Unlike the ban on plastic straws and shopping bags, the Styrofoam ban was not widely advertised in the lead up to the scheduled date at the end of January amid the national measles epidemic. 

The delay will be a relief to the importers and-on sellers of the product, who had been concerned about the economic impact of the ban for months. 

A vendor from Savalalo Market, Uai Fanene, told the Samoa Observer that she wanted Government to offer an alternative to the cheap polystyrene cups she buys for less than .20 sene each.

When the ban is enforced at the end of June, Samoa will have banned plastic straws, plastic shopping bags and polystyrene takeaway dishes in a bid to reduce the waste ending up in the ocean, generating toxic gases or polluting the food chain.

Anyone caught importing or selling the banned products will face a fine of up to $10,000. 

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