Tuvalu: A glimpse of what's to come?

Tuvalu: A glimpse of what's to come?

Waste on Tuvalu islandArticle by Tom Arden

Tuvalu, unbeknown to most of the world, lies nestled amongst the better known Archipelagos of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. A key location in the upcoming Feature Documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’, what was once a dreamy tropical hideaway is slowly changing, potentially into a nightmare.

Around 8,000 years ago rising sea levels forced small fractured populations in South East Asia and Indonesia to search for alternative territories. These brave Polynesian refugees would soon be rewarded for their efforts, in the form of a tropical paradise. They would live unperturbed on these isolated atolls for thousands of years. It wasn’t until the late 19th Century that the islands fell under Great Britain’s sphere of influence, and only in 1978 did they finally regain their independence as the sovereign state of Tuvalu.

Made up of three reef islands and 6 true atolls, its 26 km2 of land make it the 4th smallest country in the world. And one that is set to become even smaller. With the Ocean rising at over 3mm every year, it is estimated that by 2100 levels may have risen anywhere from 20cm to 2m. Tuvalu has an average height above sea level of 2m. It is conceivable that within some of our lifetimes Tuvalu will no longer exist. In what seems to be a beautifully dark, ironic twist of fate. What drove people to the islands 8,000 years ago, will soon drive them away.

Octocopter flies over TuvaluThe inevitable loss of their patria may not be the most imminent dilemma the people of Tuvalu face. Having lost the taste for local produce, Tuvaluans developed an understandable dependence on imported goods and are now faced with the corresponding backlash. What to do with all the resulting waste? Poor waste management and limited options for landfill or recycling have left the islands overrun with offal, much of it plastic. During World War 2 the islands were used as refuelling stops for trans-pacific aircraft. Borrow pits, dug to provide coral for the runway, eventually filled with rainwater and transformed into fresh-water ponds. These idyllic lagoons now lie overwhelmed by plastic. The waste is slowly pushed to the edges of these unintentional landfills. That which isn’t eventually swept away by the ocean is burnt by the locals – irrespective of the carcinogenic chaos that may ensue.

So spatially and financially restricted, Tuvalu is under a temporal microscope. Actions of the people of Tuvalu are synonymous with those of the entire world. The difference, we have the time, space and money to coat the problem. As Tuvalu struggles to adapt, the world must take heed and act now. If we continue to use plastic in its current form and at the current rate, we will be in the same situation Tuvaluans find themselves. So what do we do?

That is the Billion-dollar question.

There is some hope for the people of Tuvalu.  Pyrolysis, the process of converting plastic to fuel, is an emerging tool that could provide a possible solution to Tuvalu’s plastic problem. However currently the technology is not mobile and as such, is limited to very few functional locations. There is even scope for sea defenses contracted using recycled plastic.  But we will not know until we focus our efforts and isolate funding for solutions.

In the long term we need to redesign this material. It is fundamentally flawed in its life cycle. For now, we must educate. People cannot enact change if they do not know that there is need to do so. We must reduce the demand for virgin plastic and increase demand for recycled products. Producing 311 million tonnes of plastic a year is not sustainable.

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