Issues island nations face with modern consumption practices.

Beach debris at Lion’s Park -Tutuilia, American Samoa shows the impacts of both localized littering and ocean debris being deposited on the shoreline.

In the modern era, gone are the days when whole island villages consumed all the food they needed by planting gardens, fishing in the ocean and picking food off of the trees.  With the modernization of consumption practices comes a whole new slew of issues island nations have to face.  These items can be listed in three major categories:  health, infrastructure and pollution.  Over the last 40 years as consumption practices around the world have significantly changed the way island communities interact with the world around them.

Non Communicable Diseases – Issues with Health

One of the largest problems with modernization of island communities is the overall diet that is being consumed by the population as a whole.  According to the World Health Organization, a transition has occurred from pathogen based diseases to food intake and activity based health concerns.  In the 2011 report on American Samoa the WHO reports;

“The most serious health issues relate to the increase in chronic diseases associated with lifestyle, with their roots in improper nutrition and physical inactivity. Significant increases in the prevalence of obesity, in both sexes and at increasingly younger ages, are associated with a number of these conditions. Hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, cerebrovascular diseases, type II diabetes mellitus and its complications, arthritis, gout and some forms of cancer are among the most important chronic diseases. (http://www.wpro.who.int/countries/asm/1FAMSpro2011_finaldraft.pdf)

These dietary concerns are largely focused on the prevalence of foods packaged in metal lined plastic bags.  Prepackaged foods fall out of shipping containers like waves on a shore.  The names and varieties are as diverse as the country of origin the store owners call home.  In American Samoa, local markets are rarely operated by indigenous islanders and are instead run by entrepreneurs from places like Vietnam and China.  As part of the big picture of the problems with the local economy, this is one of the issues that many may point to regarding causes of money leaving the local economy at a catastrophic rate.  What can be said to be growing in America Samoa at an enormous rate is the wasteline of children.  With the prevalence of packaged food, the tastes of children are turning to this highly addictive, easy to consume food.  And the results are showing.  Diabetes, anemia, cancer and heart disease are all appearing as part of a modernized Samoa that are not part of it’s history and culture.  According to a guest speaker at a recent farming education event, the island of American Samoa is currently facing a 40% or greater population diagnosis of Diabetes.  This staggering statistic is supported by the American Diabetes Association

Pollution – What happens to all that packaging?

 Another part of the island life that was never part of it’s original heritage is the packaging from these manufactured goods.  Items like steel food containers, aluminum cans, plastic bottles and bags with a metallic lining are being shipped to the island and are offloaded from shipping containers by the tens of thousands every couple of weeks.  With these imported materials comes a requirement to dispose of these materials on island or export them for reclamation of the natural resources they contain.  In the case of many Pacific Island Nations with no recycling programs, the eventuality for the majority of these items is the community landfill.   For islands with recycling initiatives in place, these programs are often source separated materials – requiring individualized participation at a community drop off point instead of curbside pickup.  The need to expand collection he problem can be addressed by acquiring the next stage in technology, MRF Units.  The issue is expanding the capacity to recycle to include single stream sources like generated from public recycling containers like those found in community parks and at business locations, further allowing or even mandating by law – curbside collection that occurs in most, but not all, states.

Littering is a common behaviour in American Samoa.

Aluminum cans are littered into this hole in the sidewalk on a regular basis even though they are collected multiple times a week. This type of mentality shows the lack of education and need for local recycling programs.

What do you do when there is no concentrated focus on recycling as part of the cultural norm?  Unfortunately, as is often seen in American Samoa, where the focus of recycling does not exist – excessive littering and open burning of trash does.  This creates two specific problems.  One, emissions from burning trash are often toxic, especially when burning plastics and hazardous materials like batteries.  In addition, island based littering adds to the global burden of mitigating ocean pollution efforts by groups like The Plastic Pollution Coalition and 5 Gyres.  Due to the creation of litter on island nations combined with relatively short distances for litter to travel to reach the ocean,  much of this debris can become ocean debris as it enters streams and estuaries that feed into global currents.

With limited space to increase infrastructure, meet growing population needs and prepare for rising sea levels  expected with continued melting of the global ice shelves and glaciers; island governments will face many difficulties between balancing the population’s desires for manufactured and consumer goods and the need manage the waste stream produced by a growing consumption of these goods.  Without the implementation of infrastructure to separate and process the packaging from these goods, many governments are likely to find themselves beyond reasonable capacity in managing their island’s waste streams.

Unfortunately, even with a focus toward capturing recycling goods, there are other issues to be focused on throughout the search to develop solutions.  One reason recycling programs often have difficulty taking off is the cost of shipping materials off island.  When local businesses ship items inbound for the community to purchase, it’s easy to add the costs of shipping these items into the retail price.  However, without enhanced manufactures responsibility to reclaim or assist with the costs of shipping the items or their packaging off island, governments will continue to find the cost of shipping recycled goods to be greater than the resale value of the raw materials themselves.  It will only be with a blend of government action, education, and increased infrastructure that the combined issues of healthy lifestyles and waste management can be effectively tackled.

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5 reasons Denver’s proposed plastic bag fee has potential

According to a report on CBS-Denver, “Denver City Councilwoman Deborah Ortega has proposed a five-cent fee for every disposable bag used at grocery and convenience stores in the city limits.”  Under the current proposal 60% of this fee would go to the city while 40% would go to vendors.  The estimates of combined generated revenues according to CBS-Denver is in excess of 6  million of dollars!  While many will consider 2 million dollars in handling fees an excessive cost, and a potential ‘tax on the poor’; I would like to propose that there are at minimum five reasons why ‘Plastic user fees’ are of value.

1.  Plastic pollution is a real and present danger to our environment.  Researchers at the 5 Gyres Institute have found significant evidence that plastic pollution is a global issue polluting the natural homes off both land, sea and air animals around the globe.  In a lab project for 7th to 12th graders indicates that some bird colonies have as much as 80% of their populations that have consumed plastic in their diet.

2. User fees are proven to change consumption patterns. According to an interview by NPR’s Michel Martin, Michael Bolinder of Anacostia Riverkeeper indicates that plastic bag consumption went from over 22 million bags on a monthly basis to about 3 million.  Community governments around the country are seeing the reduction of single use plastic as additional fees encourage citizens to modify consumption patterns and incorporate more conservation minded practices into their daily lives.

3. Single Use plastic bags have low plastic recycling demand.  Consider that while many grocery and chain retail locations provide recycling collection of single use bags, curbside recycling does not.  Because the plastic density and composition of these bags there is little demand for this grade of plastic.  This limited demand means little to no profit margin, and can actually be a financial burden to waste management which is why these plastics are restricted from community recycling programs.

4. Plastic does not decompose.  Instead it behaves like rock in that it breaks down into smaller portions of itself.  Plastic is made through a chemical manufacturing process called polymerization, and is designed to be a lightweight alternative for manufacturing, storage and transportation costs.  Unfortunately, the only way to convert plastic back to natural materials is to reverse manufacture them via a process called depolymerization.  Studies by the 5 Gyres  Institue show how plastics of all sizes are contaminating oceans and beaches around the planet as well as all five great lakes.

5. Plastic is made up of oil, a primary source of single use consumption on the planet.  A report by Friends of the Earth states, “Humans today extract and use around 50% more natural resources than only 30 years ago, at about 60 billion tonnes of raw materials a year”.  This includes increasing levels of oil consumption globally that has pushed for the expansion of environmentally dangerous sources of gas and oil collection like Bitumen Tar Sands and Hydraulic Fracturing.

So while the current proposal before Denver’s City Council may not be the version that gets a final vote, I hope that you will agree that the prospect of such an action is a timely and responsible course in environmental responsibility.  If you are not already in the habit of bringing reusable shopping bags, your family and friends may  thank you, plus think of all the money you will be saving once the fee’s begin!