Pursuing solutions led by indigenous peoples are a vital part of efforts to reverse plastics pollution

The dumping of plastics in the Pacific Islands is a form of waste colonisation, driving disproportionate plastics pollution and threatening health and livelihoods.

New EIA-funded research published today (16 August) in The Journal of Political Ecology shows that prioritising the perspectives of indigenous caretakers, rather than the concerns of settler-colonisers and commercial companies with vested interests, is crucial to reversing plastic pollution and ending the exploitation of the Pacific Islands as a dumping ground.

EIA Ocean Team Leader Christina Dixon said: “EIA is delighted to support this important research, which shines a light on waste colonialism.

“All too often those who experience the brunt of plastic pollution have contributed the least and it’s critical as we shape international policy solutions – such as the global plastics treaty – that we hear the voices of those communities which are impacted.

Waters filled with plastics in floating wooden village on the coast of Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea


“Pacific peoples have vital knowledge and experience that can help combat the scourge of plastic pollution, but to do that we must ensure meaningful access to the conversations.

“High-consuming countries such as the UK are structurally dependent on off-shoring our waste to other countries to be managed, as well as exporting plastic products to countries where there is no infrastructure to manage them at end of life.”

Commenting on the research, University of Newcastle Australia environmental anthropologist and co-author Dr Sascha Fuller said the rate of production and consumption of toxic plastics is accelerating worldwide, despite the harm they are known to do.

“The global pandemic has had a significant impact on our demand for single-use plastics, which are ironically marketed as healthy and sanitary,” he said. “But many single-use plastics are problematic because of their toxic nature and this makes them incredibly unhealthy, both for our environment and for humans.”

The joint research reveals that plastic pollution effectively amounts to waste colonisation in the Pacific Islands, a region disproportionally affected by plastics pollution due to its geographical location and the colonial history which has impacted its people’s spiritual, social, cultural, economic and social ties with the ocean.

Dr Fuller said that despite being on the frontline of the world’s plastics problem, the indigenous people of the Pacific Islands haven’t had a seat at the table when it comes to the solution: “This must change if we are going to curb the global plastic disaster. Pacific peoples have the solution and they have the science – they have managed and protected their ocean for thousands of years.”

Plastic debris accumulated at Kaho‘olawe, Hawaii

A UN global treaty to end plastic pollution is expected by 2024 and will include a ‘lifecycle approach’ to plastic pollution, which may see plastic manufacturers and producers held more accountable.

Both EIA and Dr Fuller believe plastics pollution cannot be solved by waste management, but must be addressed by preventative measures, including restricting the entire production process and circulation of harmful plastics.

Indigenous voices have been at the heart of this new research, with 16 indigenous leaders in the field of plastics pollution prevention consulted and indigenous science and knowledge incorporated into the findings.

The research points out the readily available local alternatives to plastic in the Pacific Islands and elsewhere, from single-use plastic carriers being replaced with bags woven from plant materials in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu to banana and coconut fronds used for weaving baskets and for packaging take-home foodstuffs in Samoa.

The Pacific Islands contribute as little as 1.3 per cent of the world’s plastics pollution yet bears brunt of the brunt of its real-world impact.

Plastic waste enters the region through trade, tourism, the fishing industry and marine litter which flows in on ocean currents and via shipping lanes accumulate in the Pacific Ocean.

Since the Pacific Islands are increasingly dependent on importing goods and services, including food and drink, toxic plastics will continue to pollute the region unless legislation is put in place to enforce safe design and extended producer responsibility standards.

Local efforts are also thwarted by large companies with economic interests in the area; for example, in 2021 Coca-Cola stopped distributing glass bottles in Samoa in favour of plastic containers, putting pressure on government and communities to manage yet more plastic waste.