Written by Kayla Grattan
This past May, I had the incredible opportunity to study abroad with an amazing group of fellow students and faculty from Michigan State University on the remote and pristine islands of Fiji. Here we looked at tourism, marine ecosystems, and agriculture through the lens of climate change, and saw firsthand the extreme effects the South Pacific is experiencing. These are issues I am incredibly passionate about, and I started getting involved with 5 Gyres this past March to help spread awareness and implement local policy changes. I learned more about the global issue of plastic pollution than I ever thought I could, including unforeseen twists and the multiple layers of this environmental problem.
Fiji is an absolute paradise. With lush rainforests, spectacular waterfalls, gorgeous mountains, and beaches that one of my classmates accurately likened to a “real life Desktop wallpaper” it was hard not to fall in love immediately. When we arrived in country, our first week was spent on the island of Taveuni. We stayed in the rural village of Waitabu, where we got to immerse ourselves for 6 days in real, raw, beautiful Fiji. This is the third largest of the archipelago’s 333 islands, and known as the ‘garden island’ due to its lush vegetation, fresh, clean air, and productive soils. Taveuni’s coral reefs are home to some of the absolute best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world, with over 390 species of coral and 1500 species of fish, a dream come true to the marine inclined. But unfortunately, we had to snap back to reality. As the ominous plastic bag I spotted floating near the hull of the ship on our way to the island foreshadowed, it did not take long to discover that this otherwise pristine country was no exception to the way the rest of the world is looking: littered with trash. It was tucked everywhere, from the tiniest pieces and fragments to the most conspicuous of elements. Along streets, in rivers and forests, and of course, on beaches.
One of the nights in the village, I was strolling the beach and began to pick up small plastic fragments. Rapidly these small pieces turned into finding much larger items like beverage containers, shoes, and buckets, so much that my classmates had to help me carry it all back. Upon my return I asked one of our guides what I should do with it all. She then informed me that in Fiji, the method of disposal for plastic rubbish was to burn it, and my heart sank. I felt so stupid: how was I expecting to properly dispose of the plastics I found? This wasn’t a popular American beach where you can simply take the recovered items to a nearby recycling center. Burning plastic waste creates toxic fumes, which I learned from one of our guides has been linked to birth defects in villages. What was I supposed to do? Leave them in the water to meet the same fate as all ocean plastics? Or bring them to shore only to be burned as if they’re firewood. I was at an environmental and moral crossroads, and learned that studying this problem here was going to require me to look at the situation a little differently, and perhaps more positively.
On the brighter side
One thing I noticed in Fiji that I certainly did not expect to see was the country’s incredible ability to reuse. Plastic containers that would certainly be considered “single use” and “disposable” by our standards were used over and over again. I saw water bottles used to pot plants and store knickknacks, milk jugs as canteens, and assorted plastics used to carry water. My personal favorite example of reuse and upcycling were small purses and pencil cases made by weaving strips of potato chip bags that local women were selling. (I, of course, had to buy one) It got me thinking about this underlying reuse mentality – a spirit of sustainability and that we’ve long forgotten in the states. This spirit replaced by our throwaway culture, which is quickly catching up to us and our oceans. What if we all used our things like the people in Fiji? To use and value our things to their chemistry given potential, rather than to toss them as soon as their design constitutes that they become garbage? As a fortunately growing number of people are realizing, this is a question that the world needs to look into.
To cap off our stay on Taveuni, and the bulk of my independent study, we participated in a group cleanup effort sponsored by Nakia Resort and Dive, an ecotourism operation run by the Kelly family, of whom we got so spend some very quality time with on the island. The Kellys started the informal ‘Keep Taveuni Clean’ movement 8 years ago and it has grown from its humble beginnings to an island wide success. They host regular town cleanups and environmental education programs, and each year it is topped off with an annual music festival themed around sustainability and environmental appreciation.
Our group of students and staff joined locals, Nakia staff, and other tourists to help cleanup downtown Somosomo, filling two truck cabs full of rubbish that we took later on to the island’s landfill. This landfill is the only one of its kind on the 434 kilometers of Taveuni, and is nothing compared to what we are used to seeing in the United States. Only a few years old, the Kellys actually used their own excavator to create it, after intensely lobbying the government for permission to use the area. By regularly taking the town’s waste to this landfill, they are changing old trash-burning and ocean-dumping mindsets, and making a huge difference in how the locals see litter and garbage. The Kelly family, Nakia Resort and Dive, and the Keep Taveuni Clean movement are making great strides to help preserve the country’s unmatched natural beauty.
My experiences studying in Fiji were absolutely unforgettable, and I was able to look at the plastic pollution problem in a dynamic, cultural, and global way that I was never able to do back in the states. Before embarking on this journey, I thought I knew all there was to know about plastic pollution and its causes. At home, it seems the hot topics that the plastic crusaders like myself are focusing on are microbeads, Keurig cups, straws, and other examples of senseless single use plastics. (Focusing on these for good reason, of course) While in Fiji and many other countries, it’s totally socially acceptable to burn garbage or throw it directly into the ocean, something unheard of to us in the states. As a whole, we are not all on the same page when it comes to this issue, and this is easy to forget. No matter where you are on our earth, there is room for improvement and change, for the sake of the oceans, the land, and all of the creatures that call this planet home. Through studying one of humanity’s ugliest problems, I came out of it having learned a beautiful lesson.
(This article originally appeared on 5 Gyres. It has been reprinted here with permission.)