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Philippa Stevenson: Notes from small islands on rising tide of rubbish


An emailed response to an earlier column posed the question: Do you live in a small island?

If I did, I was urged to "tell us what you think". I thought: "spam".

But something stayed my hand as it moved quickly to the delete key and I read the message through to the end. It was, in fact, an interesting discussion on a problem peculiar to the people of some island states scattered around the planet.

With miles of water and land masses between them, island folk from the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and the Pacific were using the internet to exchange ideas, and air problems and solutions.

I don't live on a small island, I thought, so while the discussion was mildly intriguing it was not relevant to me. But then I realised - from my little patch of the North Island - that I did, and it was.

I became an interested observer of the Small Islands Voice (SIV) global forum set up by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2002 to reduce the effects of islanders' isolation.

As discussion topics popped into my in-box, it became clear our scattering of islands probably has more issues in common with tiny island nations than it does with countries on large continents.

New Zealand may not be at risk of sinking beneath the waves like the Maldives, or be caught up in an ownership dispute between larger nations, such as the San Andres Archipelago, but as often as we might think big, we are not.

Sounding like a list of recent New Zealand news headlines, SIV discussion topics have included the cost of development, access to beaches, tourism strategies, foreign investment, rising crime and violence, and garbage disposal.

This last topic, discussed in June, resonated because, not only do we have our own rubbish disposal problems, at this time of the year many of us jet off for a little sun on some small tropical island where we add - usually unthinkingly - to its trash woes.

Dulph Mitchell of San Andres - 100,000 people in 27sq km - kicked off the debate.

"We are now swimming in excessive garbage, with the threat of health epidemics that will be harmful to our children, youth and old people, and without any appropriate management in sight."

KB responded: "The same thing is happening to us in Palau, a very small Pacific island with a population of 15,000.

"The foreigners don't care where the trash goes because they don't have to stay. People work everyday picking up trash. I think it is one of the main reasons why it is everywhere - people know somebody is going to pick it up."

From a small dive resort on a Fijian island, Viola Koch said rubbish was buried or, in the case of one large resort, dumped in the ocean.

From Samoa, Iteli Tiatia bemoaned that while plastic bags lay "everywhere" a local factory continued to make them and other businesses imported more.

One emailer suggested island nations collectively demand that manufacturers of products sold in the islands use less packaging, or only biodegradable packing. Another said countries should import food only in bulk containers so it can then be packed domestically using recyclable materials.

Patrick Finniss of Rodrigues, Mauritius, reported that recycling and composting was reducing rubbish. And importing companies were required by law to crush or recycle plastic bottles and cans.

From New Zealand, we can only hope that the new voluntary Packaging Accord signed this month by the Government and the packaging industry will help stem our rising tide of trash.

The latest accord is designed to reduce waste, not just recycle it, and "move toward product stewardship".

SIV correspondent Koin Etuati of Fiji would agree. He recently quoted renowned waste management researcher Dr Paul Connett of St Lawrence University, New York. "Society's task is not to perfect the destruction of our waste, but to find ways to avoid making it.

In the longer term, after the citizen has played his or her part by supporting source separation, reuse, recycling, composting and toxic removal, industries have to pay more attention to the way objects and materials are made and used. How an object is going to be used or recycled has to be built into the initial design," he said.

Size doesn't matter - the Small Islands Voice forum shows that. Being bigger simply means it takes longer for the problem to become urgent.

New Zealand Herald 20 July 2004


To get involved, contact :


Coastal Regions and Small Islands Platform
UNESCO, Paris, France
fax: +33 1 45 68 58 08

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