Recycling Efforts Ramp Up in The Cook Islands

In most cities, rubbish gets whisked away by trucks, never to be seen again by the people who disposed of it. But on tiny islands like ours, the consequences of wasteful habits are more apparent. On outer islands, there’s no landfill. On Rarotonga, there’s one.

A 2012 survey suggested more than half of the rubbish at the landfill was, in fact, recyclable, even though some businesses were sponsoring the export of recyclables. Community groups, importers, and government agencies began thinking more seriously about innovative solutions to the problem of waste.

A resident began making purses out of food wrappers. Local companies applied for funding to ship recyclable rubbish offshore, destined for facilities capable of processing it. National policy declared a commitment to achieving “zero waste”.

The movement gathered momentum.

“Despite the problems, standards for solid waste management and pollution control are noticeably higher in the Cook Islands than in most of the other Pacific developing member countries,” reads a report commissioned in 2014 by the Asian Development Bank. “With tourism comprising such a large proportion of its economy, Cook Islanders want those standards to be even higher.”

In 2019, the Cook Islands government set aside funding for an industrial-sized glass crusher to deal with the nearly thousand tonnes of glass ending up in the landfill each year. The machine turns glass into sand that can be used for concreting, thus achieving a dual objective: reducing the amount of rubbish going into the landfill, and allowing sand to stay on beaches. It allows for nearly half the weight of the island’s waste to be diverted from the landfill.

Jaime Short, who coordinates waste programmes at Infrastructure Cook Islands, credits collaboration between government and the private sector with the progress made in the area of waste management. Currently, her team is working on building disposal costs into products and offering monetary incentives for recycling. This is the policy-level work that supports the “zero waste” vision, which calls for “an informed and proactive Cook Islands community taking responsibility for sustainable solid waste management”. On small islands, where waste feels like everyone’s problem, the call to action reverberates.