Reducing Plastic is a Matter of Survival in The Cook Islands

When Alex Olah, a young builder from the west side of Rarotonga, sailed on a traditional canoe to North America in 2012, his perspective expanded in two important ways.

He swelled with pride in knowing he is descended from the world’s greatest seafarers, people who studied and deeply understood the rhythms of land, sea, and sky. The other thing he became aware of, to his chagrin, was the great damage human activity had done to the ocean.

Sailing south from Mexico involved seemingly infinite amounts of plastic. Most people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; not many have experienced it.

“We sailed through it for weeks on end,” Olah wrote later of his experience.

Plastic is among the most enduring scourges of modern living.

Designed to last for a thousand years, it’s a cheap material to produce and sell, and so it has become easy and convenient to use. Four hundred million tonnes of the stuff are produced every year. Much of this ends up in landfills, where it can leach into the soil, or in the ocean, where it can enter the food chain. Scientists predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastic also gets burned, a practice that creates highly toxic fumes.

Plastic washes onto the beaches of our remote islands, its labelling a testament to its foreign origins. It also arrives on cargo ships. On tiny islands like ours, the impact of consumerism on the environment is more evident than in other, larger places.

At the turn of this century, people began to recognise that their environment, the linchpin of people and culture in the Cook Islands, was under duress, and that plastic was a significant part of the problem.

Community groups began selling cloth bags. The largest retailer in the Cook Islands began charging for plastic bags, then discontinued them altogether. A school set up a rent-a-plate station at a local market, where vendors had been selling food in polystyrene containers. A local nonprofit organisation ran an awareness campaign to reduce plastic containers and straws.

“It’s crazy when you think about it, that these single-use plastics are a one-off thing [and that they] last 1000 years before finally starting to break down,” says Alanna Smith, a former Miss Cook Islands who spearheaded the campaign. “Not very sustainable at all.”

Local supermarkets began selling biodegradable straws and cutlery. Cafes and restaurants began using them. One supermarket began wrapping its produce in banana leaves instead of plastic. Several food vendors substituted leaves for plastic containers.

Last year, the government’s Water, Waste, and Sanitation Division ramped up the movement to reduce plastic; as a result, this month the Cook Islands Parliament considers a bill to ban the importation of any more single-use plastics. The proposal is part of the government’s vision to achieve zero waste in and through the “systematic reduction of the amount of solid waste both generated and disposed of”.

This aligns with the island way. For thousands of years, Cook Islanders survived not by importing plastic-wrapped packages but by harvesting the abundant resources around them – fish, seafood, fruit, animals, vegetables. Many still do. In the Cook Islands, reducing plastic is not the subject of philosophical debate; it’s a matter of survival, not only of environment but also of culture.