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Samoa searching for plant-based alternatives to single-use plastics

Like many other places around the world, the South Pacific island-nation of Samoa has begun phasing out single-use plastic products, and styrofoam will be next. Businesses and research organizations there are finding creative uses of local resources to fill in the void. Mike Taibbi reports as part of our "Samoan Islands: Shifting Tides" series with Pacific Islanders in Communications support.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Like so many countries, including the U.S., the South Pacific island nation of Samoa has begun to move away from single-use plastic and styrofoam products. But its actually harder for Samoa and other islands, because just about everything they consumer is imported by sea or air. Most of those goods are plastic or wrapped in plastic…and they rarely head back out.

    As Special Correspondent Mike Taibbi found in a visit to Samoa for our "Samoan Islands: Shifting Tides" series, the solution being pursued involves new uses of old technology and traditional resources.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    James Atherton is vice president of the Samoa Conservation Society, and with his cousin Alan Schwalger spends part of each day walking among the palm trees.

  • James Atherton:

    That looks like a nice one for the machine…that one's gonna come down soon.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    What they're looking for are the palm leaves— or sheaths— that have fallen to the ground or are about to fall and the machine they'd be good for is this one: a hydraulic press made in India that uses heat and five tons of pressure for a single minute to make these— inexpensive plates and bowls he says can be washed and re-used for months and that are not plastic or styrofoam. However.

  • James Atherton:

    We've only got one small machine with three burners. To get to the point of making money on the basic product we'll probably need two or three more of them to churn out 1,500 units a day.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    To stay in production, his company Samoa Green Products turns out its basic products, plates and bowls and bamboo straws, but has added more expensive gift and handicraft items ranging from platters to coasters and other ornamental items. The venture still doesn't quite break even.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    It has to work as a business…

  • James Atherton, Samoa Green Products:

    Absolutely. i think even as an environmentalist, one can't be too idealistic about trying to be green. We have to have green solutions that are cost effective and that make money, otherwise it doesn't work.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    There's certainly a market for a green alternative. Last year Samoa banned single-use plastic bags, joining Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand in that first step; and later in June styrofoam cups and containers will also be banned as soon as stores exhaust their stockpiles of those products.

  • Vicki Hall:

    Educating people don't litter, don't illegal— legally dump, dispose of your waste properly.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Vicki Hall is the Waste Management and Pollution Control Director at SPREP, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme. She says the transition can't happen quickly enough.

  • Vicki Hall, SPREP:

    There is a number of plastics that aren't necessary. They can be substituted or designed out of products.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Atherton isn't the only green products designer hard at work…

    In fact, he's now partnering with the Scientific Research Organization of Samoa to source alternative plant materials for eco-friendly plates and bowls. For example, besides palm trees there's at least one resource that is plentiful on the island.

  • Fiti Laupua:

    So we strip it into small pieces.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Fiti Laupua, a statistician by training, is leading the effort to turn the trunk of the ubiquitous banana tree into the go-to replacement for a range of plastic products. He took us through the steps.

  • Fiti Laupua:

    You have to boil it with sodium hydroxide or lye.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    What does that do?

  • Fiti Laupua:

    It breaks down the fibers, so it's easy to blend, and to make a pulp out of it.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    The pulp is pressed into sheets…And eventually, from out of the dehydrating oven, sheets of banana fiber fabric that can easily be molded to make plates, cups, utensils or containers. You know, the things we've been using forever.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    It's labor intensive, but Laupua says the machines to do much of that labor are not hard to conceive or fabricate. Do you think it'll happen?

  • Fiti Laupua:

    If we get the funding, yes, it'll happen.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Is that a yes or a no? Do you think it'll happen?

    Fiti Laupua, Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa: If there's a will, there's a way, yeah.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    There's a top-down effort by the government here to impose that will. Billboards and signs everywhere, even on city buses… "Support the plastic ban. No more straws"… "Keep Samoa plastic-free"…" And, the ban is the law…a nationwide law that's about to cover styrofoam products too.

    Samoa's population is just under 200,000…about the same size as Akron, Ohio— Shreveport, Louisiana— or Yonkers, New York. Imagine telling everyone and every business in a population that size that as of a certain date, no more single use plastic items… it's against the law!"

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Here, in a small country with a big plastic pollution problem, the response seems to be let's go for it. Stores and markets keep the message clear, and their customers are paying attention. 80-85% by official and unofficial estimates, using biodegradable or re-usable bags for their purchases.

    There is a concern though that Samoa's efforts to fend off plastic pollution are too little too late: that the ban is a good move but that in practical terms setting up recycling bins and collection points means next to nothing.

    At the country's one sanitary landfill, manager Fualaga Pemita told us there's no company or country willing to take on the task of re-cycling the more than eight thousand tons of plastic refuse generated annually in Samoa in the years prior to the ban.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    That's a lot plastic refuge for one island. What happens to it?

    Fualaga Pemita, landfill manager: It all ends up in the landfill…

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And even if Samoa could handle its own re-cycling dilemma, there's little to be done about the constant low-speed tsunami of plastic infusion in the surrounding ocean. There are huge Pacific garbage patches, the nearest twice the size of Texas, with plastic a dominant component, even as those plastics eventually break down.

    So much so, in fact, that a 2018 study of 34 commercial fish species in the region showed that 97% had at least trace amounts of micro-plastics. That's 30 percent higher than the global average.

  • James Atherton:

    We know plastics get into the food chain and affect obviously the animals that eat it, the fish and other animals that eat it. and then of course we consume those animals and therefore, there's a microplastic crisis.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    That's why Atherton, long an environmentalist after all, traveled to southern India to see how whole regions have managed for years without single-use plastics. How they've learned to cultivate palm plantations to supply a small-bore industry that turns out plates and bowls and cups and utensils that are now the norm.

  • James Atherton:

    What you see here in Samoa is discarded polystyrene plates. You don't see that in India. People are now using palm plates everywhere for their food.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    So Atherton brought one of those India-made presses home and cranked it up, convinced by the way that palm leaves aren't the only source material he'll eventually use.

    Samoa is an appealing tourist destination that can't afford to be overrun by plastic pollution, and changes in laws, and in how consumers consume, seem a logical way that these island gems in the blue Pacific can retain their lustre.

  • James Atherton:

    I think in the future all Pacific Islands can get to the point of mass production of these items.We're at a state on this planet that we have to make bold choices and difficult choices in the way we live our lives, and our behavior.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Business has slowed these months because of the pandemic-induced stall in trade and travel. But it hasn't stopped, and with the ban in place and apparently popular, Atherton says it won't stop.

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