Under Siege: Plastic Pollution Threatens Solomon Islands marine life

Mataniki River Mouth, where children play with plastic waste washed down the Mataniko River. PHOTO: Charley Piringi

The sun rises over the crystal-clear waters of the Solomon Islands, casting a warm glow on the nation’s pristine beaches and lush rainforests. But beneath the surface lies a growing menace – plastic pollution.

Solomon Islands is surrounded by some of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems on the planet. Coral reefs teem with life, providing sustenance and income to countless communities. With a population of around 700,000 and a reliance on the ocean for food, income and cultural identity, the country is vulnerable to the impacts of plastic pollution.

In August this year, the national government gazetted plastic ban regulations. They came into effect in September, with a six-month grace period. The grace period allows plastic importers and distributors to sell their current stockpile, Chief Environment Officer Wendy Beti of the Ministry of Environment said.

She added that the grace period also gives people time to get find alternative means of packaging.

According to the Deputy Director of Environment, Debra Kereseka, plastic bags make up 12% of the contents of Honiara’s main landfill, the Ranadi dumpsite. 

“Managing plastic waste continues to stress infrastructure and already limited resources in the small island nation.

“The Pacific Islands do not produce polymers and like most small island states we face serious challenges in managing plastic waste in a safe, economically and environmentally sustainable way,” Kereseka said.

The plastic tide

As with many other coastal regions, most plastic pollution in the Solomon Islands originates from land-based sources. Poor waste management infrastructure and limited recycling facilities mean that plastic waste ends up in rivers and eventually flows into the sea. 

In addition, plastic waste from other countries often drifts onto the islands’ shores, carried by ocean currents.

The Honiara City Council, with support from the Japanese government, has been working to upgrade the Ranadi dumpsite for several years.

But the struggle continues. River systems and coast lines are flooded with PET bottles and plastic. 

Honiara City Mayor Edward Siapu supports the new regulations and said the capital should be the pride of all Solomon Islanders.

“The Honiara City Council appreciates the government for the plastic ban regulation and we are looking forward for its implementation phase.”

However Honiara resident and environmental activist, Lawrence Makili, is concerned about implementation.

“The best regulation this government ever came up with is the plastic ban, which I appreciated. But the implementation part of it is what the government needs to prepare for. The alternatives, to plastic must be taken seriously.”

As Chairperson for the Lord Howe community, he says plastic pollution has been a nightmare for his people, who live around the Mataniko River mouth. 

“You can see women and children washing daily in this river system, despite the fact that plastic pollution from upstream always washed down here.

“We have no other water sources apart from the tap water we use, but it’s cheaper to use the river for washing purposes. River pollution from upstream daily is growing unbearable, but where else can we go for washing?”

Local mother, Joyce Kusai normally does her laundry at the site, and says: “If people living upstream can put themselves in our shoes, they can feel the same way we feel too. 

“It’s the responsibility of the Honiara City Council to keep this river system clean to support us.”

Lord Howe Settlement, along the Matanikau River Mouth
Lord Howe Settlement, along the Matanikau River Mouth. PHOTO: Charley Piringi

A threat to marine life

One of the most heartbreaking consequences of plastic pollution is its impact on marine life.

Chancelor of the Solomon Islands National University Dr. Transform Aqorau says, “It is reaching pandemic levels.”

“Marine animals, such as sea turtles, whales, and seabirds, often mistake plastic debris for food, leading to blockages, malnutrition, and even starvation. Additionally, animals can get entangled in plastic debris like fishing nets, six-pack rings, and plastic bags, which can impede their movement, lead to injury, or cause death. Plastics can absorb pollutants from the surrounding water, introducing toxins into the marine food chain, which can accumulate as they move up trophic levels. This process, known as biomagnification, has a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem. Plastic debris can also smother coral reefs and alter seabed communities, and it provides a vessel for invasive species to spread.” 

Dr Aqorau added: “As plastics degrade, they break into smaller particles called microplastics. These particles are consumed by a wide range of marine organisms, from plankton to whales, introducing toxins and disrupting feeding behaviors. The ingestion of plastics by smaller organisms and their subsequent consumption by larger predators means that plastic and its associated toxins can move up the food chain, potentially affecting food safety and human health.”

He said, over time, plastic can also leach chemicals like BPA into the water, which can disrupt the reproductive systems of marine organisms. 

“The presence of plastics can harm both the fishing and tourism industries, with littered beaches being less appealing to tourists and fishing equipment being damaged by plastic debris. Floating plastics can also alter physical processes in the marine environment, such as light penetration and gas exchange.” 

Lastly, he said, the production and decomposition of plastics release greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change and exacerbating ocean acidification, which affects many marine organisms, especially those with calcium carbonate shells or skeletons. 

“Addressing plastic pollution is vital for the health of marine ecosystems and requires a global effort in various sectors.”

Dr. Aqorau said with implementation of Solomon Islands’ new regulations, the government needs to get serious about alternatives.

Pet bottles and plastic pollution at the Honiara sea front
Pet bottles and plastic pollution at the Honiara sea front. PHOTO: Charley Piringi

“Solomon Islands can enforce a ban on single-use plastics by drafting and implementing strict laws that prohibit their manufacture, sale, and distribution. It’s also essential to launch public awareness campaigns that highlight the environmental impact of these plastics while promoting sustainable alternatives. Engaging manufacturers, retailers, and consumers in the decision-making process ensures understanding and support. Promoting and subsidising the development and use of sustainable alternatives can provide viable options for consumers and businesses.”

He believes that: “Offering tax breaks or other incentives to businesses that adopt eco-friendly practices can encourage compliance, while implementing significant fines or penalties can deter violations. Effective monitoring of markets, ports, and factories is crucial to catch violations, and investing in waste management and recycling facilities can help handle existing plastic waste. 

“By holding manufacturers responsible for the end-of-life disposal of their plastic products, countries can further reduce environmental impact. Strict checks at ports and borders can prevent the illegal import of single-use plastics.”

He adds: “Funding research to develop more eco-friendly materials and improving waste management processes can provide long-term solutions,” and that “integrating environmental education into school curriculums can instill the importance of sustainability from a young age.”

Local Solutions

Despite the challenges, there is hope on the horizon. Communities across the Solomon Islands are taking action. 

In Western Province, local government leaders implemented a ban on single-use plastics in 2020, encouraging villagers to embraced reusable bags, woven bags from leaves and containers, reducing their plastic footprint and protecting their coastal environment.

Western Provincial Clerk, Charles Kelly said the initiative has been very active in the Western Solomons. “It’s not only about cleaning our environment, but also our people depend on the marine environment for livelihood.”

The upcoming Pacific Games aim to be a plastic-free event.

“The road to a plastic-free future needs more than just a ban; it necessitates a comprehensive transition towards environmentally friendly alternatives. I urge all of you to explore and promote sustainable alternatives to single use plastic. Let us encourage the use of reusable bags, biodegradable packaging and ecofriendly substitutes for every day plastic items” said Karl Kuper, the Deputy Secretary Corporate, Solomon Islands Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management & Meteorology at a recent government consultation. 

The items proposed for the ban include plastic shopping bags, straws, cups, plates and cutlery, polystyrene foam takeaway products and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles with a capacity of less than 1.5 litres. 

“This transition will stimulate innovation and drive towards alternative industries. The development and adoption of environmentally friendly alternatives will create opportunities for our local entrepreneurs, foster economic growth and job creation. 

“By embarking on sustainable solutions, we position ourselves at the forefront of a green economy, attracting investment and show casing Solomon Islands as a responsible and forward-thinking nation,” Kuper added. 

“The Solomon Islands alone cannot solve this problem. It requires international cooperation, with countries worldwide reducing their plastic production and consumption,” Dr Aqorau notes.

As the world grapples with the consequences of plastic pollution, the Solomon Islands serve as a poignant reminder that even the most remote and pristine corners of the Earth are not immune to this crisis. The fight against plastic pollution here is a testament to the resilience and determination of the people who call these islands home, and a call to action for all of humanity to protect our shared environment.

This article is part of a series on plastics management in the Pacific Islands region.

Plastic pollution at the Honiara sea front
Plastic pollution at the Honiara sea front. PHOTO: Charley Piringi

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