Indigenous-led solutions key to reversing plastic pollution, say researchers

Plastic pollution is an international problem, as billions of pieces of plastic have found their way into the ocean from commercial and household waste, blown from landfills and trash cans into sewers and rivers and out to sea. Marine animals can ingest and become entangled in ocean plastic, leading to disease, starvation and death. Plastic releases toxic chemicals and does not naturally biodegrade in the environment.

An inordinate amount of plastic waste has been dumped in the Pacific Islands (Te Moananui) in what is known as waste colonization or waste colonialism – where a disproportionate amount of plastic pollution is dumped in an area, leading to threats to the livelihoods and health of its inhabitants, according to a press release from the University of Newcastle, Australia.

in a new paperResearchers show that prioritizing the rights and needs of indigenous peoples, rather than the interests of colonizers and corporations, is key to reversing the tide of plastic pollution and ending the dumping of plastic on Te Moananui, according to the press release said.

The study, “Plastic pollution as waste colonialism in Te Moananui”, was published in the Journal of Political Ecology.

Although the environmental risks are well known, the production and use of plastics has continued to grow, according to Dr Sascha Fuller, environmental anthropologist and Pacific Engagement Coordinator at Newcastle University, according to the press release. from Newcastle University.

“The global pandemic has had a significant impact on our demand for single-use plastics, which are ironically marketed as healthy and hygienic,” Fuller said in the press release. “But a lot [single-use] plastics are problematic due to their toxic nature and this makes them incredibly unhealthy, both for our environment and for humans.

Due to its location, Te Moananui has been excessively and unfairly impacted by plastic waste. The researchers found that the plastic pollution in Te Moananui was the colonization of waste. Colonialism has had a negative impact on the spiritual, cultural, social and economic connection that the people of Te Moananui have with their oceanic homeland.

“Despite being on the front lines of the global plastics problem, Te Moananui has not been at the solution table. This must change if we are to curb the global plastic catastrophe,” Fuller said in the press release. “The people of the Pacific have the solution, and they have the science, they have managed and protected their ocean for thousands of years.”

According to The United Nationsby the end of 2024, there will be a legally binding international treaty on plastic pollution that will address the “full life cycle” of plastics, from production and design to disposal.

Fuller hopes the study will help implement the treaty.

“The problem of plastic pollution cannot be solved by waste management,” Fuller said in the press release. “It can only be solved by preventive measures, in particular by limiting the production and circulation of harmful plastics. This would include regulating the production of virgin plastic and introducing design and manufacturing standards to ensure that every plastic product is safe and recyclable. The introduction of warning labels on toxic plastic products, similar to mandatory warning labels on cigarette packs, should be part of the rollout of the treaty.

For the study, researchers consulted with sixteen Indigenous leaders who work to prevent plastic pollution and incorporated Indigenous knowledge and science into the research.

In the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, bilums ⁠— traditional woven bags ⁠— replace single-use plastic bags. And in Samoa, baskets are woven from coconut and banana leaves, and the leaves are also used to wrap takeaway food.

Fuller said it’s ecologically unfair that Te Moananui has to deal with so much of the world’s plastic pollution problem, when as little as 1.3% of it comes from them.

“The Moananui nations are currently ill-equipped to manage the costly and harmful impacts of this global problem, which is of enormous magnitude and externally generated,” Fuller said in the press release. “While countries in the Pacific region need to strengthen their plastics legislation, that is not the main issue here. The crucial question is what the rest of the world is doing – or not doing.”

Plastic waste from foreign sources arriving on the islands has a direct effect on the ecological community of Te Moananui.

“Plastic litter comes to the region through trade, tourism, the fishing industry, and marine litter that pours in through ocean currents and shipping lanes and accumulates in the Pacific Ocean. It ends up on the coasts and lands of Pacific nations, impacting the environment, human health and livelihoods,” Fuller said in the press release.

Fuller said that because Te Moananui depends on imports that are not held to extended producer responsibility requirements or legislation requiring non-hazardous design, the Pacific Islands will continue to be polluted with toxic plastics.

The big companies supplying goods to the islands are not helping the situation. Last year, Coca-Cola replaced the glass bottles it distributed in Samoa with plastic bottles.

Fuller added that bringing Indigenous vision and politics to the fore is key to preventing local views from being silenced by corporate forces and to addressing the problem of waste colonialism in Te Moananui.

Bryce K. Locke