World Earth Day: Building a Sustainable Future for Our Blue Pacific

April 22, 2024

By the time you have finished reading this sentence, approximately 117,000 plastic bottles will have been used across the globe.

Photo: UNDP

An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter our oceans annually, the equivalent of a garbage truck dumping its contents every minute.  

By the time you have finished reading this sentence, approximately 117,000 plastic bottles will have been used across the globe.

These figures alone express the urgent need for greater accountability – alongside finding alternative solutions – should we overcome humanity’s addiction to plastic.  

Only about 9 percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, highlighting the need for improved waste management infrastructure and increased public awareness. And here in our region, our addiction to plastic is continuing to harm our Blue Pacific and its already-fragile biodiversity.  

The Blue Economy continues to play an important role in providing food, jobs, and establishing livelihoods for millions of people around the world – particularly here in the Pacific – with our oceans estimated to generate up to US$3 trillion in economic activity each year at the global level by 2030.  

In Fiji alone, approximately 15,000 tons of plastic waste is produced annually, yet only around 10 percent of this recycled. Studies have shown that fish found in the Pacific region contain higher percentages of microplastics and are even found in local food staples such as freshwater mussels.

We are quite literally eating plastic, along with the toxic chemicals used to produce these products.

The pristine environments of the Pacific are a major draw for tourists, but single-use plastics threaten this very appeal. Tourists across the region are currently responsible for generating seven times more plastic waste per person, per day than a Pacific Island resident does.

The Pacific Regional Environment Program and the Pacific Tourism Organization are developing a single-use plastics standard and certification programme, an initiative that will involve research, design, development, implementation, and monitoring.

This partnership exemplifies regional agencies working together to combat the issue of plastics, and to safeguard the Pacific's beauty – there is hope amidst the bottles and bags that lie upon many of our region's otherwise golden beaches.

In Fiji, the country's government has implemented measures to address plastic pollution, including bans on single-use plastic bags and styrofoam containers. Further to this are efforts to also ban single-use plastic containers, straws, cups and utensils. The Climate Change Bill 2019 being one piece of legislation to comprehensively address these environmental concerns.

Vanuatu broke new ground in 2018 by becoming the first country to outlaw plastic straws. This pioneering legislation also encompassed other non-biodegradable plastics, such as bags and polystyrene containers, and the ban has since expanded to include plastic cutlery and grocery packaging like netting and clamshell containers.

In Palau, single-use plastics from all government offices and agencies are banned, with the country also becoming the first to ban harmful sunscreens that are toxic to coral reefs. But if bans worked, we wouldn’t be having a conversation around the dangers that our region continues to face at the forefront of much of the world’s plastic pollution.  

We can also look beyond the Pacific for inspiration and apply these learnings to the local context. Extended Producer Responsibility being one such initiative, making producers financially responsible for the end-of-life management of plastics and promoting a more sustainable plastic life cycle.

UNDP is committed to finding sustainable solutions, tailored to the specific needs of Pacific Island nations, solutions that that empower local communities. In the Fijian community of Nadera, UNDP is supporting an innovative, locally led project limiting the leakage of plastic waste and debris downstream, these areas vital sources of food and economic activity for the surrounding community.

As we mark World Earth Day this year, let us heed the call to action and empower communities to lead the charge for change. It is our region’s coastal communities who serve as guardians of our Blue Pacific, and from individual action to collective initiatives – including both the private and public sectors - we can create a future where plastic pollution is no longer a threat to our planet.

The challenges posed by plastic pollution are immense, but so too are the opportunities for positive change. Let us renew our commitment to protecting the planet and promoting sustainable development for all.