Plastic, glass waste: Tonga’s ongoing environmental problem


Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are vulnerable to plastic pollution due to their expansive coastlines, says the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Image extracted from the EIA Plastic Pollution Prevention in Pacific Island Countries: Gap analysis of current legislation, policies and plans – August 2020 Report)



The Kingdom of Tonga in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean was known as a “paradise” island. But not anymore. Plastic and glass waste is an ongoing problem in Tonga’s environment and it has created a dilemma for the government.

How will the government address this issue? Does it need to ban plastic and glass materials or such goods from being imported to Tonga?

Tonga was well known to many tourists for its stunning natural beauty, pristine beaches, and rich cultural heritage but nowadays some tourists and peace corps volunteers—who were here before—has said that Tonga has really changed as villages, islands and other places that were used to be beautiful are now all completely a disaster with an acute waste problem.

This is due to the fact as they witness—some people dump their rubbish everywhere, especially at beaches and public areas. Plastic bags are very helpful to many people, but after people make use of them, they don’t put them in the right place like the rubbish bin.

Dr Peter Suren, a professor from Germany who lived in Tonga 30 years ago, talked about the development he has noticed over the years compared to when he first visited Tonga in 1990.

“For us palangi foreigner, if we come here to Tonga and see all the plastic waste,, we feel unwell. We think how can the people live here with their houses full of tins and whatever rubbish and then we feel unwell about it. Why? because now in the Western countries, we have the audacity to see plastic in a very bad light and we stop to produce plastic bags,” he told Wansolwara.

He said the issue was common among the Pacific Islands and the region should work together to address this issue.

“There must be something done this way to stop this problem— especially in the small islands,” Dr Suren added.

Tonga is made up of approximately 170 islands and atolls, with a total sea area of 700,000 square kilometers. Only 36 islands are inhabited, while the remainder is largely untouched. The kingdom’s population is only 106,017 according to the 2021 census.

In countries like Tonga, most of the population heavily rely on the ocean for their daily meals, but as years have gone by, there has been a decline in the marine species and their livelihood due to various reasons such as littering.

As such, the government and other organisations like the community group, No Pelesitiki Campaign, are working together to find ways to solve these issues such as recycling plastic and glass waste.

The No Pelesitiki Campaign promotes the use of replacement bags such made from coconut leaves and biodegradable material, instead of single-use plastics.

Eleni Tevi of the No Pelesitiki Campaign says that their campaign is not exclusive to picking up rubbish in coastal areas as they have now reached a milestone of transforming plastic into handicrafts for women to make earrings, dresses, handbags, and others.

“We are trying to teach women how to make use of plastic waste to make earrings, dresses, and handbags not only to help with their income but also to keep the environment and ocean free of plastic waste,” she said.

One of the ways to do so is the creation of the Tapuhia Landfill—most of the concern is because the landfill is full of plastic as it makes up about 90 per cent of the rubbish at Tapuhia. The landfill 11km from the Capital Nuku’alofa is a former quarry and was opened as a sanitary landfill in 2007.

Aid shipments after the January 2022 volcanic eruption have also added to the plastic waste problem. The kingdom received more than 200  shipments of aid supplies which included 86,000 plastic bottles of water. Most of these bottles ended up in the Tapuhia Landfill.

Even though trash bins have been provided for the public to use, the Deputy Director of the Environment Department, Mafileó Masi says, it is a pity that people continue to litter on the beaches and the coastal areas today.

“There are cleaning campaigns on the way and it is not enough to keep the beaches and coastal waters clean as people continue to litter,” she said.

“There are also some people who use the beach for cleaning their meat products, especially beef, and leaving behind their plastic waste.”

The department also aims to conduct public awareness programmes on the importance of keeping the environment clean and to curb littering.

“People should be aware of the significance of keeping the environment clean and safe from any plastic waste as it contains toxic chemicals which will harm the marine organism for a long period of time,” warns Masi.

Meanwhile, the Tongan Department of Environment is working on developing a roadmap for the reuse of plastic waste as part of effort to minimise littering. Once it is completed, the department hopes to engage donors to fund their projects on the reusing of plastic waste.

However, the department is urging the people to be more responsible as their actions will not only affect them—but will also affect a lot of people and the oceans’ living species.

The concern is that with such a huge amount of plastic waste, it harms the marine organism and affects the environment negatively.

* Fresh Polutele is a second-year journalism student (Tonga) at The University of the South Pacific (USP.

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