Banning plastic to save our island communities

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Alexander Rheeney

It will only be a matter of time before fishermen in Samoa catch fish with plastic in the stomach or see marine animals get trapped in abandoned plastic fishing nets.  

Last month 300 sea turtles were reportedly found dead off the coast of Mexico, with experts suspecting toxic algae attached to abandoned fishing nets or asphyxiation (the act of depriving something or someone of air).

Thousands of kilometers to the northeast of Samoa – halfway between Hawaii and the American state of California – lies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The patch is an area of the Pacific Ocean that is home to an estimated 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic that enter the ocean each year from rivers. According to the Dutch not-for-profit organisation The Ocean Cleanup, more than half of the plastic that enters the ocean from rivers is less dense than the water, in that the plastic will not sink when in the sea. The Ocean Cleanup estimates that the patch in the Pacific Ocean covers an area three times the size of France.

The mass of the plastic in the ocean is estimated to be approximately 80,00 tonnes – 4-16 times more than previous calculations, says The Ocean Cleanup. A total of 1.8 trillion plastic pieces are estimated to be floating in the area. Most of the plastics retrieved from the area were made of rigid or hard polyethylene, polypropylene or abandoned fishing equipment such as nets and ropes. 

Depending on the size and types of plastic, they can float in the ocean for many years and gradually get worn down into micro-plastics by exposure to the sun, wavers, marine life and temperature change. The transition of plastics into micro-plastics can make it very difficult to remove and sadly are often mistaken for food by marine animals. 

There are concerns that the impact of plastic on the marine wildlife will eventually affect the human food chain and became a danger to men, women and children in Samoa and the rest of the Pacific. The threat posed by plastics to the human food chain is real and should be addressed, especially for Pacific Island communities, where fish is considered the staple food and is the primary source of dietary protein.

It is why the work of a group of young people recently in Apia, to promote a clean Samoa and raise awareness on the dangers of pollution, is very important. Top marks to the Envirobassadors, a youth group comprising 30 volunteers, who have walked the talk and done advocacy and outreach programs in schools on top of their cleaning initiatives. 

“I think that the young people of Samoa should be more active in our community in regards to environmental issues. After all it is our country. We all need to play a part in keeping Samoa clean,” says group member Kuinileti Purcell.

Jorim Paul Phillips, Envirobassadors president, added: “If we are always complaining about the bigger countries doing bad things, we need to start looking at ourselves and understand what we can do to be the difference.”

Kuinileti Purcell and Jorim Paul Phillips are right – it is time for us to think globally and act locally. There is no doubt that the future of our island communities – thanks to our dependency on plastics of all shapes and sizes -  is fraught with danger. There needs to be a shift in our thinking on the use of plastic on a daily basis. We cannot disregard the dangers that lie ahead for us as a community, whose lives have revolved around the deep expanse of an ocean and all that it had to offer for thousands of years.

The work of groups such as the Envirobassadors will compliment a policy that Samoa’s Government unveiled early this year to ban single-use plastic.  Major supermarkets in Apia effective this month began charging customers an extra fee for plastic bags. The ban, which was announced by the Government in January 2018, is expected to go into effect in the New Year and will also cover plastic straws.

But the long-term benefits of a government policy will ultimately depend on an informed and proactive population, which is willing to make sacrifices in exchange for the future prosperity of his or her community.  Therefore, it is good to know that a number of organisations including businesses such as hotels have come forward in recent months, announcing their support for the Government’s single-use plastic ban and offering their clients and members of the public alternatives.

Jorim Paul Phillips has commended the move by the Government to ban plastic bags. 

“I think together as a country, community we need to find solutions to combat these issues,” he said, while indicating that the amount of trash hasn’t decreased since they started the initiative. But the key lies in “slowly change people’s mentality”, he added.

With only three months to go before the New Year and the plastic ban going into effect, we should think as a community and a nation and acknowledge the benefits that lie ahead in terms of food security, prosperity and economic and social wellbeing if we take this path. We cannot go wrong if we support Government’s plastic ban policy, as we will only be securing the future of the next generation of Samoans. 

Have a wonderful Wednesday Samoa and God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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