The government is under pressure to find a new, environmentally safe way to deal with the truckloads of waste created around the island every day – and there is additional pressure due to the absence of sufficient investment into the area of waste management.
The latest research shows Small Island Developing States like Cook Islands produce an average of 2.3 kilograms of waste per person per day – and much of it comes from the tourism sector. That is 48 per cent higher than the OECD average.
The capacity of these islands to safely manage and dispose of toxic and polluting waste is under pressure from growing populations, rapid development and increasing amounts of imported goods.
Waste Management Director Jaime Short says the current landfill was originally set to close in 2020. That lifespan is being extended through regular compaction with available machinery.
Short said Infrastructure Cook Islands would be searching the market for post landfill options through Expressions of Interest in the coming months. Alternatives are technologies such as incineration and pyrolysis for on-island, another landfill, or shipping waste overseas to landfills or energy plants.
Diversion through recycling, or prevention through import bans for difficult packaging, were essential to a sustainable waste management framework, she added.
“The solution isn’t to landfill or burn everything.”
Cook Islander Rerekura Teaurere, who has studied solid waste management, said she was looking at how the tourism industry could reduce waste.
“Tourism is a massive contributor of waste and on small islands and it’s obvious because they have limited ways to develop economically.”
Teaurere said relying on tourism, our country’s greatest earner, meant that we now had to manage vast amounts of waste.
Since the beginning of last year it has become increasingly hard for the Cook Islands, because China is no longer accepting our recycling.
The country’s last recycling shipment went to Malaysia, which takes a massive amount of re-directed waste.
According to a recent Greenpeace report, during the first seven months of 2018, plastic waste exported from the US to Malaysia more than doubled compared to the previous year.
Recycling was not the target, Teaurere said, and the divide between imported and exported products in the Cook Islands was not sustainable anymore.
“So what are we going to do with our waste?”
Teaurere said Cook Islands needed to reframe the way it looked at waste and move in the direction of developing and promoting local products, government regulations to minimise waste in the tourism sector and assess the viability of a circular economy where waste from one industry can be used for another.
Teaurere's father is originally from Penrhyn, where waste is a growing issue. “We need to rethink what we send to the outer islands,” she said.