Turning the Tide on Plastics

This is a joint op-ed from the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation Viliame Gavoka & UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Resident Representative a.i. Dawn Del Rio. Contributions were received from Tourism Fiji and Andrew Paris.

June 8, 2023

This is a green turtle with an attending Batfish at Blue Corner dive site in Palau.

Photo: Richard Brooks/Lightning Strike Productions

Pristine, picturesque, paradise. Common words which are often used to describe our Pacific Island Countries. It is not unusual to hear that a visit to the Pacific region sits on the bucket lists of many people. With crystal clear waters as far as the eye can see, swaying palm trees, and fresh ocean air, it is easy to understand why any Pacific Island Country would be a dream holiday destination. 

A famous writer and undersea explorer, Arthur C. Clarke, once remarked - “How inappropriate that we call this planet Earth, when it is quite clearly Ocean”. And it would be hard to find a Pacific Islander who does not agree with this. Connected through the largest ocean in the world, it holds deep cultural, social, and economic significance to Pacific Islanders. As stewards of the Blue Pacific, visitors are often welcomed with open arms and quickly learn from locals why the ocean holds such high importance in Pacific culture. 

For those of us working to protect the Pacific’s vast ocean and its’ way of life through resilient blue economic development, we see beyond its beauty and fear its’ demise from a myriad of challenges. Policy makers such as the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation, Honorable Viliame Gavoka, acknowledged the opportunities that tourism brings to Fiji, while recognizing its negative impacts on Fiji and the region’s fragile ecosystems. This is especially true with the high usage of single-use plastics by tourism activities.  As shared by local marine scientist and ocean health advocate, Andrew Paris, "Contributions of Pacific Island Countries to the plastic pollution crisis are greatly outweighed by the effects on Pacific people's cultural, economic and social connections to the ocean— once again we find ourselves on the frontlines of a planetary crisis".

On 8 June 2023, we celebrate “World Oceans Day”, to bring global attention and action to the vital importance our World Ocean’s, and we thank the Pacific Island Forum for their leadership and advocacy every year to bring attention to the Pacific and this year’s theme, ‘Planet Ocean: Tides are Changing’. At the same time, we celebrate World Environment Day 2023 with this year’s theme #BeatPlasticPollution — reminding people that their actions matter.

The global plastics crisis is often referred to as a ‘wicked’ problem due to its complex and multifaceted nature, it is posing a serious threat to the health of our oceans. Studies have shown that if nothing is done to seriously change the way we are producing, manufacturing, consuming, and disposing plastic products, we will have more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. This would completely change the lives of Pacific Islanders, who are dependent on the ocean for food, transport, livelihoods, and traditional practices. Pacific Island countries contribute less than 1.3 percent of the world’s mismanaged plastics yet are one of the main recipients of plastic pollution, especially through ocean currents. Local marine scientists have already discovered microplastics in common Fijian food staples such as kai (freshwater mussels), with an average of approximately six microplastics per kai.

In Fiji, tourism is the main revenue earner, contributing about 40 percent towards GDP, and supporting over 100 000 jobs. Every year, approximately 140,000 tonnes of solid waste are disposed of in Fiji, with tourism being a major contributor to plastic waste, at almost half a pound of plastic waste per tourist everyday (land-based). Around 13 percent of tourism waste is plastic according to reports by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This begs the question – how can we continue to sustain a booming tourism industry, while simultaneously combatting a growing plastics crisis? 

A recent report found that tourists in Fiji produce seven times more plastic waste per person per day than households. This presents the tourism industry an important opportunity to introduce innovative ways in which plastic use can be reduced. While it is important to encourage recycling as it makes us more conscious of how we are disposing plastic products, it is even more important to know that we cannot recycle our way out of the plastics crisis — more efforts are needed to reduce the production and use of plastics.

Tourism plays a significant part in advancing a circular economy — especially in Pacific Island Countries. This requires the right mix of public and private sector policies that drive sustainable practices. 

The Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation is currently spearheading a 10-year policy as a roadmap to competitively position Fiji and deliver greater benefits. The National Sustainable Tourism Framework seeks to leverage Fiji’s natural, cultural, physical, and reputational assets for resilience. Of course, a prosperous Pacific needs healthy ocean — a key focus of the Framework. 

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for more eco-friendly travel has grown. Tourists are becoming more conscious and look for destinations where they leave a smaller carbon footprint and contribute more meaningfully to the local community and environment. Fiji’s tourism industry is leading our responsibility to that of our Vanua, and the oceans we depend on. From turtle conservation and phasing out single use plastic, to introducing waste recycling initiatives — the industry has started to implement ways to minimise and eliminate the use of plastics. This is a shared commitment that helps preserve our natural, pristine environment. 

So much so that Fiji’s new national tourism brand is “Where happiness comes naturally”.  In alignment with the brand, Tourism Fiji, Government’s marketing arm, has brought to life, Loloma Fiji: Protecting the Fiji we love.
Loloma Fiji is a sustainability roadmap between Tourism Fiji, our partners and visitors for social, cultural, economic and environmental preservation. Loloma Fiji incorporates several initiatives including a new sustainability accreditation for our industry, and ‘Loloma Hour’ – a programme designed to encourage visitors to use an hour of their stay to undertake an activity that helps preserve our culture or environment. Both initiatives are currently in development.

In iTaukei, ‘loloma’ means to act with generosity, driven by love. Through Loloma Fiji, Fiji aims to inspire visitors, the tourism industry, and all Fijians to help protect our home and do their part today, so future generations can enjoy it tomorrow.

It is promising to see that more hotels and resorts have started adopting conservation programs such as coral planting and marine sanctuaries, transitioning to renewable energy, and zero waste initiatives. At a slower pace, some properties have even opted to go plastic-free, such as Six Senses Fiji. However, there is still a long way to go.
Many countries have found success in increasing plastic recyclable rates by introducing national container deposit legislations (CDL). A publication released by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP) found that Pacific Island Countries’ such as Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) have seen positive results following implementation of their CDLs. A recent survey by the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji found that out of over 1,000 private sector businesses that were surveyed in Fiji, over 98 percent supported the implementation of a national CDL, and believed this was key in reducing the volume of plastics that end up in landfills, rivers, and oceans. 

The United Nations envisions a world free of plastic pollution and aims to works with partners to improve plastics regulations and implementation in 100 countries, support effective plastic waste management plans in 100 cities and islands, and mobilize 100 million people to take action on plastic pollution. In support of these ambitious targets, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji has been working with partners to explore more effective approaches to plastic waste management in hotels and resorts, as well as in communities outside of city areas.  Partnerships are crucial in tackling the plastic crisis and it will take a combination of various approaches and stakeholders to be able to see a real shift to a more circular economy for plastics. 

Fortunately, one need not look far for inspiration – as local youth groups such as the Pacific Ocean Litter Youth Project (POLYP) continue to lead by example and show us just what collective effort and passion can achieve. The youth-led project works to collect and classify marine litter in Fiji and uses science and art to influence behavioral change and inform policies. What better way to envision a future that is circular, than to look to our future leaders.
But our youth need our support. To change our own consumption habits, it will require co-operation across a range of stakeholders from government, private sector, academia, CSOs, citizens, and the informal sector. While it may not be an easy feat, it certainly is not impossible. A few years from now, we will look back and ask ourselves why we didn’t we act sooner to turn the tide. 

As we look forward, let us continue to be inspired and aspire to influence a much-needed shift towards a circular economy for plastics, for the future of our people and planet.