FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tackling the Plastic Threat to Tourism

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tackling the Plastic Threat to Tourism

FHTA, 25 May 2023 – Plastic pollution has become a pressing environmental concern globally, and the Pacific region is not exempt from its devastating impacts.

The Pacific plastic problem has emerged as a major threat to the sustainability and attractiveness of Fiji’s tourism sector, not just because there is a greater focus on trying to get everyone in the industry onboard with understanding the deeper issues and impacts of not choosing to care for the environment, but because the future of tourism as we know it, is at greater risk because we are less cognizant that many things we take for granted are actually not good for our environment.

We are supportive therefore, of efforts to make a substantial shift in our approach to what tourism must look like in the future; by making the necessary changes now.

This approach is made all the more difficult when a national position on this is noticeably absent.

This issue not only affects the natural beauty and biodiversity that draw visitors to Fiji but also impacts their overall perception and experience. And yet, our visitors who we rely on to contribute so significantly to the industry and therefore to the economy, are only here for a short time.

Many of us who live here must endure the painful experience of seeing the beauty of our country being continually taken for granted with the constant tossing of rubbish out of bus and car windows, and with seeing household waste being tossed carelessly into mangroves, streams and rivers – all eventually ending up in the oceans that provides our food, medicine, livelihoods, and nurtures vast marine ecosystems. The very same ocean that influences weather and climate by storing solar radiation, distributing heat and moisture around the globe, and driving weather systems.

While we may consider it our right to hold larger and more advanced economies accountable for climate change and rising sea levels, we might also take the time to see how we can individually and nationally protect what we collectively own.

We are, as a private sector tourism association using our collective voice to spread the word, share information and create more awareness, and hopefully influence more people, more businesses and more industries to get on board and do the right thing.

Addressing plastic pollution is but one, critically essential element in a host of other safeguarding measures being taken to support the long-term viability of the tourism industry, and we are under no illusions on just how big a task this is. But we are going at it, one bite at a time and taking each necessary step that is required in addressing massive behavioural shifts by consulting widely, listening to the many experts from the varied environmental platforms available, or reading and sharing the research. And now we are also ready to ramp up our awareness programs that will help create a better understanding that we hope will result in more supportive initiatives.

This week the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) hosted the first of many planned webinars for its members with Mr Andrew Paris, one of Fiji’s most respected and passionate researchers on plastic and its contribution to pollution in our little patch of paradise that might not be this beautiful soon at the rate we’re piling plastic pollution into it.

The webinar has helped to shine a light on the severity of the plastic problem in Fiji and the region, with severe consequences already being reported for marine ecosystems in the Pacific.

Marine animals often mistake plastic debris for food or become entangled in it, leading to injuries, suffocation, and death. But the most alarming aspect about plastic is that it does not biodegrade as we are so often led to believe, but rather breaks down into smaller pieces over time, forming microplastics.

These microscopic particles have infiltrated every level of the marine food chain, threatening the survival of numerous species. Some studies even reveal that there are microplastics in all of us.

Yes, that’s right – INSIDE us.

The presence of microplastics within our bodies highlights the alarming reality of plastic pollution and that is a scary and sobering reality. Plastics release toxic chemicals into the water, further contaminating the marine environment.

These toxic chemicals increase in toxicity when broken down to be recycled so in that respect, recycled plastic is even more dangerous than normal plastic.

Recognizing the severity of the plastic pollution problem, Government and stakeholders have undertaken various research initiatives and implemented measures to address this issue.

Led mainly by eco-warriors and environmentalists like Andrew Paris, extensive research has been done to understand the sources, distribution, and impacts of plastic pollution in Fiji’s waters. These studies have provided valuable insights into the specific challenges faced by Fiji and have helped shape targeted interventions.

The limited access to formal waste collection in Fiji is a significant challenge that affects approximately half of the country’s population. This essentially means that only one out of every two households has the privilege of having their refuse removed by approved collection agents. And even then, we are not compelled by regulation, requirement or common sense, to separate recyclable waste, use composts or reduce our wastes by trying to reuse items as much as practicably possible.

The pressing question arises: where does the other half of the population dispose of their garbage? It is not hard to guess.

The absence of necessary infrastructure and means to collect household waste from all villages, communities, and even islands off the mainland exacerbates the issue exponentially, and until we consider this at a national level and address it in policies and widespread education; then this challenge will remain the currently daunting one it is for many more years to come.

As a result, residents in communities without formal collection methods will resort to alternative waste disposal methods, especially without the understanding of the harm they are contributing to, intentionally or not.

The inadequate waste collection infrastructure not only poses environmental concerns but also hampers public health and sanitation efforts.

Collaborative partnerships between the government, local communities, and relevant stakeholders are essential to finding sustainable solutions and mitigating the environmental and public health risks associated with inadequate waste management in Fiji.

The tourism sector has often been singled out as a primary contributor to plastic pollution in the environment, with particular emphasis on the plastic waste generated by amenities like individual shampoo and conditioner bottles, as well as plastic packaging in kitchens and restaurants.

Although this claim has been valid, huge efforts have been made to move to refillable dispensers for bathroom amenities, cleaning agents, replacement of water bottles and ordering in larger recyclable or disposable containers. But even when hotels and resorts make efforts to segregate their waste for recycling, the ultimate destination for most of it remains the same: one of the eight dumps or landfills around the country. And anecdotal information has noted that all waste is being treated the same.

This highlights a broader issue within the waste management infrastructure in Fiji.

While individual establishments within the tourism industry may take steps to responsibly handle their plastic waste, there is a lack of centralized recycling facilities capable of efficiently processing and managing the collected recyclables.

Establishing accessible and specialized recycling centres throughout Fiji is crucial for better management of plastic waste from both the tourism industry and the general population, minimizing its environmental impact and the historical response that insufficient waste is generated to make recycling efforts worthwhile, must change.

Communities that dispose of their waste by burying, burning, or discarding it are causing more harm than good, particularly since most items for reuse contain plastic or plastic residues; but by and large, most are not aware of this.

While Fiji took a significant stride in reducing plastic waste by banning certain-width single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam containers in 2019, the replacements introduced have proven to be equally problematic, with thicker plastic bags ending up in the same disposal sites and alternative containers still being made of plastic.

This progress, therefore, appears to have been accompanied by setbacks and lateral shifts, not to mention the obvious one where if you remove something in big demand, you must replace the item with a better alternative or risk leaving a gap that is filled with options that have far bigger consequences that the one you initially removed.

There have been community-driven clean-up campaigns and waste management projects to raise awareness, promote responsible waste disposal, and prevent plastic from entering waterways. These efforts reflect Fiji’s commitment to mitigating plastic pollution and preserving its marine ecosystems, not only for the sake of environmental sustainability but also for the well-being of industries that rely on pristine environments and critical food sources.

Research conducted by Andrew and his colleagues has yielded shocking but important findings regarding the extent and impact of plastic pollution in its waters and revealed alarming statistics that are indicative of widespread plastic debris in coastal areas, including beaches, mangroves, and coral reefs.

The presence of microplastics, in particular, has been extensively documented, highlighting the potential harm they can, and do cause to marine organisms and ecosystems. The findings identified the sources and types of plastic waste that contribute to water pollution that include land-based activities, such as poor waste management systems and improper disposal of plastic items.

Additionally, plastic pollution from fishing gear, maritime activities, and shipping, including lost or discarded fishing nets, ropes, and packaging from maritime vessels, contributes to the problem; persisting in the marine environment for extended periods.

Hence the urgency of taking more widespread action to address plastic pollution in Fiji’s marine environment and why we must collectively change our approach to rubbish and in particular, plastic.

We are raising awareness and fostering a sense of responsibility with our industry stakeholders, our visitors and our local communities. These collaborations involve partnerships for marine conservation, supporting and sharing research and conservation efforts, particularly in understanding coral bleaching and plastic pollution.

An American environmentalist has said that “There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.”

And in Fiji, that somewhere is our ocean. An ocean that is rising and may soon be outside your door, bringing your long discarded waste with it.

But you can do something about that now.

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