The Rarotonga landfill is full and growing. GRAY CLAPHAM 19090428/29/30/31.
Overseas, the Covid-19 economic slowdown and home lockdowns have enabled the most sudden and dramatic improvement in environmental measures like air and water pollution in modern history. But not in Cook Islands.
Until you see it from above, it’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of the Rarotonga Landfill.
Infrastructure Cook Islands secretary Diane Charlie-Puna describes it as a “growing solid waste monster”, insidiously taking over every square inch of the land above and below.
Nearly every human sense is affected by a visit to the landfill and not in a pleasurable way.
A sea of rubbish as far as the eye can see.
The sound of heavy machinery pushing the pile of solid waste from one place to another to make room for the new lots of waste.
And a smell that is intensified by the hot weather and bearable only for a short time.
Charlie-Puna says she feels for her staff who work there – she couldn’t do it and she doubts many others could either.
But people just don’t get how significant the problem is, she says.
It’s an unseen crisis and time is running out, if people don’t start consciously thinking about waste management it’s going to create huge challenges.
Consumerism has resulted in a big pile of rubbish – humans crave convenience.
“But people think “out of sight, out of mind”,” she says.
If you’re active on Facebook and other social media platforms, you would have seen posts about how Covid-19 was sent as a reminder to humans to look after the Earth.
For the first time in 30 years, people who live in Northern India are seeing the tops of the Himalayan mountains.
In the UK, Londoners are saying the stars in the night sky are as clear as they’ve ever been.
Closer to home, with no one coming into the country and the tourism industry at a standstill, picturesque posts of locals walking along beautiful, deserted, white sandy beaches and comments about how clean and turquoise blue the sea are flooding the internet.
Environmental experts say it is too early to tell whether the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on climate change and the environment. There are few reliable short-term measures of air pollution or water pollution.
But what we often don’t think about are the unseen impacts like solid waste disposal.
Visitor numbers are significantly down because of Covid-19 – and the assumption is that should mean less solid waste and therefore less impact on the environment.
Diane Charlie-Puna says she’s received messages from her team at the landfill that suggest otherwise.
“There is no specific data available at the moment but we have noticed an increase in the number of recyclables – tin, cans, plastic bottles to the landfill,” she says.
“This an indication that people are staying at home and eating more canned food and other things due to Covid-19 restrictions.”
Operation Namu, which saw puna volunteers dedicate time to clean up in an effort to eradicate mosquito breeding grounds, may have contributed to a sudden increase in the overall volume of domestic waste collection.
Domestic rubbish still forms the bulk of the waste generated in country.
Charlie Puna says tourism contributes only a fraction of the island’s waste volume, which says a lot about resorts and other operators and the efforts made to reduce their waste over the years.
“So there has been no noticeable reduction of waste volume because of tourism numbers to Rarotonga in the last month or so.”
Opened in 2005, the Rarotonga waste facility was signalled as a purpose-built solution to Rarotonga’s waste management needs until this year.
And there were positive signs that the messages about recycling and reducing waste were getting through.
The Single Use Plastic Ban Policy approved by Cabinet last year was heralded as progressive steps to preventing waste accumulation.
But the Covid-19 crisis has brought more challenges for everyone.
Restrictions have meant people are encouraged to stay at home and efforts to reduce, reuse or recycle have gone by the wayside.
Before the threat of a global pandemic was present, the Cook Islands faced a range of different challenges when it comes to solid waste management.
Waste reduction and disposal was a problem prior to the Covid-19 pandemic not only on land but for the ocean as well.
Constant reminders about sorting and separating recyclables from everyday waste were driven by Charlie-Puna and her team.
Refusal to pick the rubbish up was one strategy used as well by waste management workers, but often it meant that it was just left on the road side, thrown into a bush left to rot and ripped to bits by animals.
“People need to be reminded that domestic collection is free in the Cooks,” Charlie-Puna says.
“Other countries are user pays systems and not free.”
When the country comes out of its bubble and the world returns to some sort of normality, Charlie Puna says there will be a plan unveiled in regards to what the next steps are for solid waste management.
Even though the landfill may not be visible, it needs to be on people’s minds, so when the tourists return they are reminded about the importance of keeping the island beautiful.
“Please continue to practice proper recycling and sorting of domestic waste and recyclables in our homes,” Charlie-Puna says.
And when you think about throwing that plastic bottle, or drink can in with the rest of your rubbish, Charlie-Puna asks that you spare a thought for her staff.
“Currently they are sorting through general waste to recover recyclables cans, tins, glass bottles, plastic PET bottles,” she says.
“It will make my staff members job easier at the landfill to manage the processing of recyclables if we all do our bit.”