FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Rising to the Challenge – The Fight Against Plastic Waste Gains Momentum

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Rising to the Challenge – The Fight Against Plastic Waste Gains Momentum

FHTA, 25 August 2023 – While plastic is everywhere in our lives nowadays, it is getting to the point that we cannot actually see it – part of being so used to it now that it literally disappears from our conscious noting. You can find it in almost everything around us – from the clothes we rock, the phones we can’t put down, to the bottles we chug our way through, and yes – even the fish are eating apparently.

But here’s the kicker: too much of a good thing can turn bad quickly. And that’s what’s happening with all the plastic waste that’s sneakily creeping into our environment lately.

The rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic products overwhelms the world’s ability to deal with them as plastic pollution becomes one of our most pressing environmental challenges. Experts say that plastic pollution is most visible in developing Asian and African nations, where garbage collection systems are often inefficient or non-existent. We do not doubt that Fiji and other Pacific Island Countries (PICs) should be included in this group of developing countries, given our low recycling rates and equal issues of dealing with the proper collection and discarding of plastics.

So how did plastic trash become so ubiquitous that it prompted efforts for a global treaty to be written and negotiated by the United Nations?

Consider that plastics made from fossil fuels are just over a century old with the production and evolution of thousands of new plastic products accelerated after World War II to a point where it has so transformed our lives that we could not do without it today. This invention and progress have revolutionized medicine with life-saving devices, made space travel possible, lightened vehicles, vessels and aircraft, and in so doing, saved fuel and pollution. It has saved and continues to protect lives with helmets, incubators, and equipment for clean drinking water.

Not to mention the convenience that plastics offer that has now led to a throw-away culture that reveals this material’s dark side. Today, single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year. Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

So surely there are smarter people out there that can help us figure this plastic disposal thing out? Like turning them into road pothole savers, making super-strength construction material that can withstand massive tidal surges and category 5 cyclone storms. Well, these inventions are still making their way down to the South Pacific.

But we note that there are many noble efforts underway in the background to tackle this globally recognized challenge. In the Pacific at least, a resounding victory against plastic pollution and momentous milestone was attained last week with the successful completion of the Plastic Waste Free Island (PWFI) project.

This endeavour has not only revealed effective strategies to combat plastic waste leakage in the Pacific region but has also prompted crucial discussions within the tourism sector.

Spearheaded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the initiative culminated in a recent workshop to present and transfer the project’s outcomes to the governments and key stakeholders of Fiji, Samoa, and Vanuatu.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) actively participated in the workshop, seizing the opportunity to address the tourism industry’s role in this vital cause, and recognizing early that our interventions can support our stakeholders in better managing their plastic disposal programs.

Plastic pollution’s devastating impact on our oceans, into which over 10 million tons of plastic waste enter each year, necessitates targeted solutions for island nations – because someday that ocean is going to throw all that waste back at us.

Recognizing this, the IUCN initiated the Plastic Waste Free Island Project to tackle plastic leakage in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) across the Pacific and Caribbean regions. The project, supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), aligned with the global Close the Plastic Tap program, focuses on the plastic waste issue in the Pacific.

At the Grand Hotel in Port Vila on August 17, 2023, the Results Handover Workshop marked a pivotal moment as Governmental bodies and key stakeholders congregated to acknowledge the project’s research achievements, placing significant emphasis on sustainable practices in sectors such as tourism, fisheries, and waste management.

The event unveiled a comprehensive range of products, each designed to minimize plastic waste leakage and we hope the FHTA’s involvement sheds light on how the tourism sector can play a more dynamic and pro-active role in plastic waste reduction.

With tourism generating 2.4% of commercial plastic waste, the industry acknowledges its responsibility in the fight against plastic pollution. After all, you must own a problem so you can better address the issue first-hand.

The workshop highlighted eye-opening statistics, revealing that tourists generate seven times more plastic waste per person, per day than a resident – remember those safe, efficient, lighter, energy and cost-saving benefits we mentioned earlier?

Land-based accommodations alone account for 94% of plastic waste disposal within the tourism sector. Furthermore, polystyrene comprises 6% of all tourism waste, with Styrofoam takeaway containers constituting 47% of this segment. The workshop also underscored significant strides in Fiji’s legislative efforts to combat plastic pollution.

Over the past years, the nation has enacted bans on various single-use plastics, including thin plastic bags, Styrofoam, plastic containers, cups, straws, and utensils.

Perhaps not so noticeable, however, is the worrying trend of alternative-use products that look sneakily like plastic or are even tougher to get rid of than plastic.

The Climate Change Bill of 2019 also addresses disposable plastic items of environmental concern, although we await more specific regulations for how these will actually support national efforts to reduce the problem.

Delving deeper, a comprehensive audit revealed that approximately 15,000 tons of plastics are disposed of annually in Fiji, with the tourism sector, especially sea-based activities, contributing significantly to this figure.

Daily, hospitality activities contribute nearly 200 grams of plastic waste per tourist, the equivalent of six 1.5-litre plastic bottles.

The Plastic Waste Level Quantification and Sectorial Material Flow Analysis – Fiji National Report, conducted by Asia Pacific Waste Consultants in 2021, has unveiled key recommendations to combat the escalating issue of plastic waste in Fiji.

The report’s findings shed light on pressing challenges and offer strategic solutions to effectively manage plastic waste across various sectors in the nation.

Urgent action is required to provide more financial support and incentives for waste pickers and private recyclers – a sector that is misunderstood, under-appreciated and often disregarded. These efforts are essential to elevate and accelerate recycling rates and substantially reduce plastic waste, whilst providing meaningful work for those that society often ignores.

The adoption of improved source separation techniques is pivotal for enhancing material recovery. Considerable investments in waste transfer stations and material recovery facilities are crucial to bolstering the recycling sector’s capabilities, but remain an area that appears outside the remit of environmental and municipal council departments or simply in the “too hard basket”.

The overdue Environment Management (Container Deposit) Regulations of 2011 need immediate implementation. These regulations encompass deposit and refund schemes, along with product stewardship and responsibility; providing a robust framework for effective waste management.

The report emphasizes the need to drive innovation and develop viable alternatives to single-use plastics and plastic packaging. The promotion of reusables and a zero-waste consumption approach is pivotal to combat plastic pollution.

Specifically recommended for the tourism industry, the APWC report suggests making waste management an essential condition for obtaining permits or licenses to operate hotels and resorts. While we might not be ready to go that far, we have created increasing awareness for best practice efforts used by tourism businesses that very effectively reduce their plastic use footprints. From refusing individually wrapped products for use, removing individual bathroom amenities, swapping plastic straws for natural alternatives, choosing water dispensers over single-use bottles, recycling wherever possible, and even not permitting plastic bags, bottles or receptacles onto island resorts that struggle to maintain their pristine conditions.

FHTA has also strongly advocated for holding businesses accountable when doing wrong, as well as providing incentives to support best practices in these areas.

Any strategy that would amplify the enforcement of legal provisions established under the National Waste Management Act of 2010, and reinforce responsible waste management practices within the sector would be welcomed, but only once equal opportunities for waste collection services have been fully implemented at a national level for Fiji. An area we know is still at a far point in the future.

To foster a reduction in plastic waste, particularly plastic PET bottles containing 250 ml and 300 ml of water or less, the report suggests implementing financial disincentives. Levies or taxes on plastic bottles or preform imports could encourage the use of refillable water options, benefiting both the environment and local communities.

We would welcome these especially, if those same regulators could provide water dispensers at accessible locations for general public use and ensure we could provide water as a basic necessity to every citizen, regardless of where they lived.

The report encourages the promotion of reporting mechanisms for abandoned fishing gear and advocates for improved port infrastructure that would also support the repair and storage of fishing nets to reduce abandoned fishing gear and associated plastic waste.

As an economic powerhouse, we accept that the tourism industry can and must step up its game for sustainability and do less harm to our surroundings. Getting the right research support with reports like these, and then the required policies in place to support these efforts would be the next logical step.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 25 August 2023)