Indigenous-led solutions essential to reversing plastic pollution, researchers say

Putting Indigenous insight and policy at the forefront is essential to keeping local viewpoints from being silenced by corporate forces and combating the issue of waste colonialism.


Plastic pollution is an international problem, as trillions of pieces of plastic have made their way into the ocean from commercial and household waste, blown from landfills and trash cans into sewers and rivers and out to sea. Marine animals can ingest and become entangled in ocean plastic, leading to sickness, starvation and death. Plastic leaches toxic chemicals and doesn’t biodegrade naturally in the environment.

An inordinate amount of plastic waste has been dumped in the Pacific Islands (Te Moananui) in what is referred to as waste colonization or waste colonialism — where a disproportionate amount of plastic pollution is dumped in a region, leading to threats to the livelihoods and health of its people, a press release from The University of Newcastle, Australia, said.

In a new paper, researchers show that making the rights and needs of Indigenous people a priority, rather than the interests of settler-colonizers and commercial corporations, is essential to turning the tide of plastic pollution and putting a stop to plastic dumping on Te Moananui, the press release said.

The study, “Plastic pollution as waste colonialism in Te Moananui,” was published in the Journal of Political Ecology.

Although the environmental hazards are well known, the production and use of plastics has continued to grow, according to Dr. Sascha Fuller, an environmental anthropologist and the Pacific Engagement Coordinator at the University of Newcastle, the University of Newcastle press release said.

“The global pandemic has had a significant impact on our demand for single-use plastics, which are ironically marketed as healthy and sanitary,” said Fuller in the press release. “But many [single-use] plastics are problematic because of their toxic nature and this makes them incredibly unhealthy, both for our environment and for humans.”

Because of its location, Te Moananui has been excessively and unfairly impacted by plastic waste. The researchers found that the plastics pollution in Te Moananui was waste colonization. Colonialism has had an adverse impact on the spiritual, cultural, social and economic connection the people of Te Moananui have with their ocean homeland.

“Despite being on the frontline of the world’s plastics problem Te Moananui haven’t had a seat at the table when it comes to the solution. This must change if we are going to curb the global plastic disaster,” said Fuller in the press release. “Pacific peoples have the solution, and they have the science, they have managed and protected their ocean for thousands of years.”

According to the United Nations, by the end of 2024 there will be a legally binding international treaty on plastic pollution that will address plastics’ “full lifecycle,” from production and design to disposal.

Fuller hopes the study will help with the implementation of the treaty.

“The issue of plastics pollution cannot be solved by waste management,” Fuller said in the press release. “It can only be solved by preventative measures including restricting the production and circulation of harmful plastics. This would include the regulation of virgin plastic production, and the introduction of design and manufacturing standards that ensure every plastic product is safe and recyclable. The introduction of warning labels on toxic plastic products, similar to the warning labels compulsory on cigarette packs, should be part of the treaty rollout.”

For the study, the researchers consulted with sixteen Indigenous leaders who work to prevent plastics pollution, and incorporated Indigenous knowledge and science into the research.

In the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, bilums ⁠— traditional woven bags ⁠— are taking the place of single-use plastic bags. And in Samoa, baskets are being woven out of coconut and banana fronds, and the leaves are also being used to package takeout foods.

Fuller said it is environmentally unjust that Te Moananui has to deal with so much of the global plastics pollution problem, when as little as 1.3 percent of it originates with them.

“Moananui nations are currently ill-equipped to manage the costly and harmful impacts of this global problem, which is huge in magnitude and externally generated,” said Fuller in the press release. “While countries in the Pacific region need to strengthen their legislation around plastics, that is not the main issue here. The issue of critical importance is what is the rest of the world is doing – or not doing.”

The plastic waste that comes to the islands from foreign sources has a direct effect on Te Moananui’s ecological community.

“Plastic waste is coming into the region through trade, tourism, the fishing industry and marine litter which flows in on ocean currents and from shipping lanes and collects in the Pacific Ocean. It ends up on the coastlines and Land of Pacific Nations, impacting the environment, human health and livelihoods,” Fuller said in the press release.

Fuller said that because Te Moananui depends on imports that are not held to extended producer responsibility requirements or legislation requiring nonhazardous design, the Pacific Islands will continue to be polluted with toxic plastics.

Big corporations that supply goods to the islands aren’t helping the situation. Last year, Coca-Cola replaced the glass bottles it distributed to Samoa with those made of plastic.

Fuller added that putting Indigenous insight and policy at the forefront is essential to keeping local viewpoints from being silenced by corporate forces and combating the issue of waste colonialism in Te Moananui.


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