Friday, October 16, 2009

Picking up the trash

Yesterday (Thursday) we spent the day involved in a massive Ha’apai island project organized by a Kiwi (New Zealand) group named Sustainable Coastlines. The overall objective of the project is to raise awareness of the need for Tonga to create a waste management program that will eliminate—or at least reduce the amount—of waste that is burned in backyard fire pits or just thrown in the ocean.
The project involved organizing island residents to spend the day picking up trash in their communities and then transporting it to Pangai for later transport to Tongatapu in containers. Our Peace Corps group was actively involved in the day’s work, and one of the PCVs working here has been peripherally involved with the Kiwis as much of the preparation for the clean-up involved educating school children on the island of the importance of waste management in protecting the environment and some of the environmental issues associated with the current practices. Kathy and I spent the morning picking up trash around our neighborhood in Faleloa, and it appeared that most of the community was involved in some way or another. There had been a lot of publicity for the day; trucks had been organized for transporting the collected trash, the school children all participated, and the various teams were led by local youth group members. The Town Officer (roughly equivalent to the Mayor) was heard early this morning announcing the project by shouting from his front yard. Of course, this being Tonga, there were problems with trucks breaking down, a shortage of gasoline on the island, not enough trash bags in communities where participation turned out to be much bigger than anticipated, and other logistical issues complicated by the lack or readily available resources to deal with any unplanned for exigencies. However, it is estimated that 3200 people participating, exceeding the organizers' expectations.

Today as part of our training program we heard from the two primary organizers of Sustainable Coastlines. Sam and Emilie told of the history of their organization and how they came to Ha’apai (see their website at They were extremely articulate and passionate about their work, and they have worked very hard to learn how to set up a successful project in Tonga through meeting with and gaining the cooperation of a host of government officials, nobles who control the villages, other affected NGOs, Tonga education officials and local schools, youth organizations, and sponsors. It was very impressive how well they have tried to make sure that the project has all the buy-in they could possibly create. One of the perspectives they share is how prevalent plastics have become in the waste stream, whereas 30 years ago there was virtually no plastic in Tonga, especially in the form of plastic bags, bottles, wrappers. The burning of these materials in backyard pits is very unhealthy to people and the environment, and yet there is little knowledge of these consequences. And there is no ready resource for recycling plastics, which makes the problem that much more difficult to manage. All in all a strong beginning to a very difficult long-term effort, and the good news they shared today was that the country’s prime minister pledged to initiate an effort to create a country-wide waste management program, so all their good work may have lit the necessary fire toward beginning the process to achieve the primary goal.

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