Samoa battles plastic pollution

"We are already eating plastic."

This is a reality about our natural food and water supply in Samoa confirmed by a Consultant for U.N. Environment project, Tiffany Straza and supported by S.P.R.E.P’s pollution advisor, Anthony Talouli.

Countries all over the world are struggling to find sustainable solutions to address plastic pollution and the impact they are having on the environment. Due to our isolation and slow economic development, Samoa’s plastic dilemma is compounded by the non-existent means to recycle it, which is becoming more visible with plastic debris, particularly plastic bags and drinking bottles by the roadsides, riversides and beaches.

“Here we can’t recycle plastics,” said Marina Keil, the Managing Director of Samoa’s Recycling and Waste Management Association.

“I had some tourists coming in, they were really interested in plastics and asking us what we do with our waste, it goes all the way out to Tafaigata. A lot of tourists look for recycling places here, whereas with us Samoans, we don’t think about what happens to the plastic after use, it just automatically goes in the bin or turns into litter and becomes someone else’s problem.”

Like most of the other countries, Samoa sends its plastic waste to China for recycling. However according to Talouli, in recent times, China has put all countries on alert that they will no longer be accepting their plastic waste in the dirty conditions they arrive, which limits Samoa’s options for recycling even more.

“U.N. Environment is so concerned about the Pacific because the Pacific has so few options to recycling or getting rid of the plastic,” said Ms. Straza. 

“The Pacific receives so much plastic, we’re dependent on imports and those imports come wrapped up in plastics, but we also receive just on the ocean currents (even on unpopulated islands) the ocean is washing up plastic that have been put into the ocean elsewhere from other countries or from fishing vessels.”

In a press release from U.N. Environment about the recent Reef Symposium hosted by Fiji, Head of U.N. Environment, Erik Solheim, indicated that new data has shown that the coral is taking up plastic. 

This outcome for Samoa who still depends on the coral reefs does not bode well and to add to that finding, according to S.P.R.E.P’s pollution advisor, not only has plastic microfibers been found in our water supply, a fish species analysis was carried out in 2015, which tested 34 different kinds of fish in Samoa, New Zealand, Tahiti and Rapanui with results showing that 97 per cent of fish sampled had plastic in them.

“We are seeing that in almost every marine environment that we have looked at, we are seeing that animals have those bits of plastic inside.” 

Ms. Straza concurred with Talouli’s findings: “Coral has been seen to take up plastic all the way into the deep sea such as the Mariana trench, the deepest part of the ocean; they have found that the sea worms that live at the bottom of that trench had traces of micro plastic parts.”

While it is still too early to say whether plastic in our natural food supply has long terms side effects on humans, the nature of plastic is worrisome to environmental experts because of its ability to soak up toxins and chemicals, which when ingested, can possibly alter our hormones.

We have a lot to learn about that,” said Ms. Straza.

“The good thing is that most plastics are inert, in other words they aren’t reactive. I can chew on a piece of paper and plastic and it’s not going to cause a chemical reaction, but the other problem is we are learning that plastics are often made with chemicals that are endocrine disrupters, which means that they essentially change how our hormones work and there is some suggestions that potentially there are cancer causing cacogenics.”

While plastic water bottle waste is a growing concern, the popular opinion across the board is to start off with a ban or levy on the use of plastic single-use bags first, which has been successful in Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand. 

In 2005, Samoa tried to ban plastics bags by allowing alternative degradable plastics. But according to analysis, only 30-40 per cent was degradable and about 70 per cent was still all plastic. At the Pacific Island Forum hosted last year by Samoa, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielagaoi, along with other Pacific Island leaders, pledged to accelerate the ban of plastic bags and styrofoam in their respective countries.

No time line or expected date has been set for the said ban.

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