Western Province is described as the tourist destination in Solomon Islands. It has beautiful islands with white sandy beaches, pristine forests and marine resources.
However, these prestigious tourist attractions have been threatened by poor solid waste management, and the influx of plastics, aluminum materials and electronic devices into the Solomon Islands and its Western Province adds to the issue.
Gizo is a one-stop small town with close to 21 Chinese retail and wholesale shops, and a few liquor shops. It’s where both the provincial administration and other national government institution offices are located. Gizo is the largest town in Western Province of Solomon Islands with a population of approximately 10,000 people; the number is increasing every year.
According to a census carried out in 2009, Gizo has a population of 7,177. In 1999, Gizo’s population was 5,323.
According to research carried out by Melchior Mataki as part of his PhD dissertation in 2011, a person generates 0.87 kilograms of waste per day in urban areas – a total of 20,516 tons of compacted waste annually for a population of 64,600 (Mataki, 2011).
Meaning for Gizo alone, at total of 8,700 tons of rubbish are generated per day.
The population of Gizo is made up of working class and traditional owners of the land. Gizo town comes alive every weekday as people from nearby islands come to the town to do their shopping, sell their local produce and also seek health and medical services. However, no one seems responsible to keep the town clean except the Gizo Town Council.
At the end of each day, plastics, empty aluminum drink cans, disposable takeaway plates and cups can be seen everywhere within the town.
Some of this solid waste ends up in the drainage systems and later spills over to the ocean.
The clerk of Gizo Town Council, Charles Kelly, agreed the influx of solid wastes such as plastics, aluminum materials, electronic appliance and asbestos materials is worrying.
“These toxic wastes can be found anywhere within Gizo Town Boundary and Gizo shorelines to nearby coastal communities. From Gizo Town Council perspective, our greatest weakness is lack of proper regulation to confront the issue,” said Kelly, adding that solid waste has been an unregulated and least prioritized environmental threat in Western Province of Solomon Islands.
He said the Province’s existing environment ordinance which provides provisions to regulate solid waste management is out of date.
“For example, we introduced a rule that single use plastics is prohibited at the Gizo market. This rule works very well at our local market as our existing ordinance does provide a provision for us to enforce this rule. If you go the market, no one is selling single use plastic, you will find baskets made from coconut leaves for customers to buy and use as shopping bags. However, this rule does not apply to the retail and wholesale shops because our existing ordinance does not allow us to enforce this rule on the shop owners. We proposed a budget to hire a legal drafter to review our ordinance but our provincial government was not very supportive of this proposal,” Kelly said.
He said Gizo Town is growing at a fast pace and it requires proper regulations to accommodate and address issues that are approaching. Projected population by province 2010 – 2025 shows that the population of Western province will reach 107,023. The calculation is based on the birth rate per day in the country.
“We will have more investors, and more investors means there will be more shops and that becomes an issue when we are talking about solid waste and other garbage. Plastic waste, electronic waste and other waste is a product of development especially commercial activities – this means that we as a service provider need to improve our capabilities to dispose of these wastes. We need to look at ways to meet the challenge. Currently it’s very difficult for us to make changes; as I’ve said earlier, we don’t have the law to enforce rules and regulations that we put in place," he said.
“Gizo Town Council has been trying its best to dispose of all the garbage in Gizo but the garbage keeps on coming back on the streets, our shoreline and also backyards. This means that we need to look at different approaches,” Kelly added.
Roy Saunders, one of Gizo Town Council’s employees who is responsible for collecting garbage on a weekly basis, said the pandemic has hit Gizo Town Council hard financially, and that rubbish collection schedules were delayed due to a lack of financial resources.
He said management of Gizo Landfill requires financial and technical support in order to maintain the site.
The other challenge in rubbish collection within Gizo town is rubbish segregation – and people’s mindsets.
“90 percent of households in Gizo fail to segregate their rubbish. And when you are understaffed and the task is to collect the garbage within the entire town, there is no time to segregate the garbage during collection. All you have to do is collect the rubbish and dump everything at the landfill,” he said.
Western Province Environmental Health Inspector Merilyn Vana agreed with Gizo Town Council’s Kelly and Saunders that the lack of budgetary support is a great challenge when it comes to solid waste management in Solomon Islands.
She also pointed out that people’s attitudes need to change.
“Most people see rubbish as something that you will never reuse for other purpose. They just use it once and when the value is gone, they throw it away. Rubbish is rubbish and getting rid of the rubbish by any means is what people want. They see rubbish as the yuckiest thing in life," she said. “Throwing rubbish anywhere and everywhere is part our cultural behavior. People just throw rubbish anywhere and [assume] nature like rain and floods will take care of it. Behavior and attitude needs to be changed, however, it’s very difficult to change people’s attitudes."
As a result of budget constraints and civic apathy, garbage – and its associated health and environmental risks – is a growing concern. Terry Anita from Babanga Community, a village less than one kilometer from Gizo, has witnessed different types of solid waste from plastics, slippers, shoes and diapers to empty cylinders and air-conditioners beached at his village’s shoreline.
“The garbage follows the sea current, and it’s like a system going in circles. During high tide, the current drags the waste that’s washed up on our shoreline; when it’s low tide, these wastes will litter our beach. Then the next high tide comes and this garbage will be dragged out to the sea by the sea current. It’s like they are swimming away while heavier waste such as scrap metal, crates and glass bottles remain on the beach,” Anita said.
He said coastal communities like Babaga have seen an increase in garbage polluting the ocean. There is one thing that concerns Anita the most: “diapers."
Anita said the introduction of disposable diapers has exacerbated the issue.
“I would say, it’s more like an environmental issue especially for coastal marine life,” he pointed out.
People throw used diapers into the sea polluting marine resources along the shoreline. “In the past we used to fish and collect seashells for consumption just in front of our houses. Now we have diapers and also toxic wastes such as solar batteries. The shoreline has become filthy and disgusting as some of the diapers still have human excreta,” Anita said.
He adds that the diapers have also attracted crown-of-thorns starfish to the shoreline, and he has witnessed the starfish feasting on diapers in many occasion.
“Scientifically we don’t understand why this sea creature is attracted to diapers. What we do know is that this creature is a threat to our kids who always playing on the shoreline. This creature is not friendly, it can cause harmful inflammation to your body when you step on it,” he said.
Anita is in his thirties and he recalled childhood memories playing on his village’s white sandy beach without thinking of anything that would hurt his feet.
Nathaniel Edau from Fishing Village shared similar sentiments saying that plastics of many types frequently follow the sea currently and are beached at the Fishing Village sea front.
“Our village is located on the western tip of Gizo town and the current travels in two directions, going east and coming west. From experience, plastics and other solid waste thrown to sea by Gizo residents always ends up here when the current is going west-ward,” he said.
Edau said empty bottles of portable gas are the most common form of waste littering the Fishing Village seafront, and his community has no idea how to properly dispose of the bottles.
“I think this product is newly introduced in the country. I did not see this product in the early 2000s. My family also bought one but the problem we have is how to dispose of the bottles when they are empty,” he said.
Like Anita and Edau observed, Randy Solomon, founder and president of Plastic Wise Gizo, a local non-governmental organization based in Gizo, noted that the situation has worsened with the influx of imported products into Solomon Islands in recent years.
According to the World Bank, imports of goods and services for Solomon Islands were valued at US$166 million in 2001 but by 2020, amounted to US$556 million, growing at an average annual rate of 8.74 percent. She questioned whether national and local laws are strong enough to mitigate the haphazard disposal of new products that are coming into Solomon Islands.
Edau said his family frequently carries out cleanups on the shoreline to keep their environment conducive and healthy to live in. He said shoreline community cleanups are voluntary.
“Friday is our community cleanup day, and sometimes we organize our family members to do cleanups at the sea front when it’s needed. This is not a sustainable solution, but this is how far we can go to keep our environment clean,” Edau said.
However, it’s not just visible waste that’s of grave concern.
When people use the ocean and rivers as “dump sites, ignoring the underwater world and the creatures that survive underwater,” as Vana pointed out, many plastics in the discarded items begin to break down into microplastics.
Research carried out in 2020 by group of scientists and environmentalists in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands found that there was a widespread occurrence of microplastics detected in all surface water and sediment samples collected at both Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands coastal waters.
The study is part of Commonwealth Litter Programme (CLiP), a project on how the increasing abundance of marine litter is impacting the environment, human health and economies in the South Pacific.
Data indicated that microplastics were present in a range of food items from terrestrial to marine sources at different concentrations for crabs, fish and Yellow Fin Tuna with an average number of 1.7 ± 2.27, 2.9 ± 4.6 and 4.3 ± 5.13 items per individual.
The report states that the occurrence of microplastics in biota has raised huge concerns ranging from its effects on biodiversity and populations to potential risks to food safety and human health.
“In late 90s, littering in public became an offense but recently there are no fines or penalties for throwing rubbish in public places. I don’t know what happened to our laws,” said Vana.
In Solomon Islands, the Environment Act  provides a legal platform for a broader environment and sustainable development approach. The Environment Act defines wastes as liquid, solid, gaseous or radioactive materials, whether toxic or not, which are discharged into the environment or prescribed by regulation to be waste. The Act is the cornerstone for managing waste and pollution from development activities supported by a range of strategies, policies, legislations and ordinances.
Vana said her department has carried out awareness programs with the limited funds allocated to her but she said more awareness is needed – meaning, more funds are needed.
She recalls in 2017, her department was not able to secure budgetary support from the province or the national government. Vana said five years on, budget allocations for environmental awareness are still insufficient.
“We need financial support to carry out our duties and this budgetary issue has destroyed our morale to do our job,” she said.
Julie Misimake, who is Western Province’s Environment Officer, said budget allocation for this year has been very low, such that her office is unable to carry out some of its programs.
“Our budget was SBD20,000.00 and this budget was only for improvement of Gizo Landfill. We expected to review our budget in the second quarter of this year but that didn’t work out as the provincial government dissolved for the next provincial election. Normally our budget is around SBD50,000.00 and this budget is for all our programs such as rubbish collection, managing the Gizo landfill, administrative allocation and other logistics. If you look at the budget, it is not enough,” she said.
Experts and concerned community members believe that budgets – and regulations – need to keep up with changing times.
“The challenge begins with the importation of goods driven by economic ambition. While it is a good thing to import goods or products, it is intriguing that there is little priority given to how to manage these goods or products when they lose their value,” said Solomon.
Imported goods and services include manufactured products from foods, equipment and chemicals.
“From experience, we can reduce and reuse some of the waste, not most of them, and this is the problem. Now, electronic devices are coming into Solomon Islands in huge numbers and I don’t see any policies or strategy from the government to deal with electronic waste,” said Solomon.
“We cannot recycle electronic waste and these products always end up in the landfill, our backyard and in the sea threatening our marine resources and the environment. Our seafood will be poisoned,” she added, pointing to the health risks associated with polluting the ocean with trash.
According to Solomon, it is time for the national government to start implementing a circular economy model to address the issue.
She said Solomon Islands is financially incapable of addressing solid waste issues and that the last option is to enact legislation that promotes and encourages a circular economy.
“The UN declares a healthy environment a human right. Why can’t our government utilize this convention as a basis to draft domestic law that will encourage a circular economy model?” Solomon said.
A circular economy entails markets that incentivize the reuse of products, rather than scrapping them and then extracting new resources.
In such an economy, all forms of waste, such as clothes, scrap metal and obsolete electronics, are returned to the economy or used more efficiently.
In the meantime, Vana suggests that civic education on waste management is the way forward for Solomon Islands to address solid waste.
She adds that more budgetary support should be allocated to waste management programs to frequently carry out awareness campaigns among communities and schools.
“We need collective support from the national government, provincial government, NGOs, church groups and schools to address this issue. We all produce rubbish and it’s our responsibility to dispose of our rubbish properly,” Vana said.
For its part, the Solomon Islands government is trying to address solid waste management. A number of policies and strategies have been established with ongoing programs and activities.
Last year the Clerk of Gizo Town Council and the Director General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) signed a Memorandum of Understanding to implement an innovative and sustainable solution for Solomon Islands’ organic waste and recyclables management.
The MoU provides a framework of cooperation, project actions and responsibilities for both SPREP and the Gizo Town Council to work in partnership.
Project actions will include the design and implementation of an organic waste processing program in Gizo that will collect and compost all organic waste generated at the Gizo Central Market.
The project investment will introduce an Advance Recovery Fee & Deposit (ARFD) system and legislation in the Solomon Islands to improve the recycling rate in the country and assist in the establishment of a recyclable collection center in Gizo.
Another effort to address the solid waste issue is led by a partnership between Japan and the Pacific. On 17th August this year, government ministries which included the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health and Medical Services, Honiara City Council, Gizo Town Council and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) sealed a partnership to fight solid waste issues through the implementation of a Japanese Technical Cooperation Project for the Promotion of Regional Initiatives on Solid Waste Management (J-PRISM) phase II. J-PRISM is a Pacific example of triangular cooperation, involving a major donor (JICA), and a technical partner (SPREP).
Under Secretary/Technical at the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology Chanel Iroi highlights that the project is aimed at addressing waste management challenges in urban centers, especially Honiara and Gizo.
Efforts will focus on implementing plastic ban, tightening regulation in the near future, and building capacity of project counterparts through training
These efforts will build on SPREP and JICA’s Cleaner Pacific 2025: their Pacific Regional Waste and Pollution Management Strategy for a cleaner Pacific, which, outlined interventions to manage municipal solid waste, asbestos, electrical and electronic waste (e-waste), healthcare waste, chemicals (such as persistent organic pollutants, ozone depleting substances [ODS] and mercury), used oil and lubricants, marine debris, ship-sourced pollution, disaster waste and liquid waste.
They will complement the 2017-2026 National Waste Management and Pollution Control strategy, launched in 2017.
If successful, the strategy would result in clean, healthy and green happy isles. While ambitious and promising, not all residents are convinced about the outcomes of these efforts. Vana described them as good on paper but not on the ground as she sees little activity taking place in communities under these policies and strategies.
This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by The Island Sun on September 6, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A suitcase at the Gizo dumpsite / Credit: Ben Bilua.