Maintaining paradise: Akaiami clean-up

Each step along a beach can reveal new and interesting sights: hermit crabs, dried coral, beached coconuts, rocky pools full of snails, crabs, maybe an eel if you’re lucky. In the Cook Islands, it’s possible to spend lots of time walking beaches, and PICI volunteers are doing their part to make sure that the view is of natural objects, not rubbish.

Eco-volunteer Audrey cleaning Akaiami.

Our volunteers for the Aitutaki Lagoon Monitoring Project were kept active, from scientific data collection to tourist activities, from educational outreach to fun in the tropical sun. We’re really thrilled with the participation of volunteers to learn, enjoy, and help the local environment!

…even when it’s messy. On October 8, a team of 5 people collected 30 bags full of rubbish on the motu (islet) Akaiami. The team spent the whole day at it, with a lot of the time spent walking back and forth to bring the waste back to the base at Gina’s Lodge. The waste was sorted into recyclables and general rubbish, loaded onto the boat, taken to Aitutaki, and put in appropriate recycling or the landfill. The landfill waived the fees for us; thank you to Ngatupuna Ruarangi!

Rubbish on the boat, headed for Aitutaki.

The team found more than 700 plastic bottles on that one small motu in one day! In the face of such amounts of plastic on beaches, two main questions come up: Why are we cleaning this up instead of preventing it? Why bother cleaning; isn’t somebody else responsible?

The short answer is that yes, somebody ‘else’ might be responsible. The islands of the Pacific receive waste from around the world, not just what the locals produce. Littering by tourists and locals is a huge problem, one that is simple to fix if only people would change their mindset and make the minimal effort required to throw their waste in a proper bin.

Additionally, though, there is a large amount of waste that washes ashore from outside sources: rubbish dumped at sea from ships, items spilled from shipping containers, or litter from other places around the world that has traveled over the ocean for miles.

Coconuts (some sprouting), vines, old palm fronds, and plastic waste.

It seems almost silly that this long-distance transport is such a problem, but that’s the power of plastic. If we throw away a banana peel or coconut husk, it won’t make it very far. Something will eat it, or it will rot quickly. It’s still not nice to throw that waste on a sidewalk, for example, but we know that it won’t end up on an island beach far away.

In contrast, plastics are durable, lightweight, and resistant to damage – so once they’re thrown away, they stick around for a long, long time. At least 400 years, in most cases.

On Aitutaki, trucking the rubbish to the landfill.

So yes, we clean up, even though we’re cleaning up after others and even though there will be more to clean up later. Do you want there to be less to clean up? Throw less away. Tell your family, friends, and community to throw less away.

Remember the three R’s that most of us learned as kids? Reduce, reuse, recycle. The order of those words matters. We reduce first, then reuse, and then recycle as a last resort. The National Environment Service in the Cooks lists 4 R’s, adding “refuse” to the list.

Eco-volunteers Marcel and Jess wheeling waste away.

We cannot just put all the environmental burden on recycling. Recycling requires energy for transport and the recycling process – it’s much better than using all new material all the time, but it still requires a lot. It’s been said that less than 5% of the world’s plastic is recycled, and some forms are still not recyclable. It’s far better to reduce our consumption than to just expect that someone else will take care of it later.

Jess with some of the collected waste.

The truth is that there are already small bits of plastic in the marine environment that will be there for the next thousands of years, practically forever. They’re already there, and we have no way to clean them up from the sand, the deep ocean, the gyres, the guts of marine animals. It’s important for us, now, to slow and eventually stop that contamination. We’ll be talking about some practical ways to reduce waste on the blog, in an island context.

And for now, whenever we walk a beach, we take a (recycled, reusable) bag to clean it up.

What a beach should look like: no rubbish.

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