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Tiny Easter Island deals with giant trash problem

Easter Island off the coast of Chile has a major trash problem. It’s near what’s known as a “trash vortex” in the middle of the South Pacific and floating waste is constantly washing ashore. Local officials estimate the growing population is producing more than 20 tons of trash per day. What’s to be done? Jeffrey Brown explores some creative solutions, including a music school made of garbage.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, we conclude our series on the growing plastic problem.

    It is now considered one of the largest environmental threats to both humans and animals.

    Jeffrey Brown takes us to a tiny island in the South Pacific that is increasingly dealing with more and more of the world's trash.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Tiny pieces of plastic in the sand, larger pieces caught in the rocks, for this cleanup crew, it's a never-ending fight.

  • Man:

    And this is the reality here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's plastic?

  • Man:

    It's plastic. This is microplastic. This is a rock. This is the plastic.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ana Maria Gutierrez, a civil engineer who works for the local government, leads the effort..

  • Ana Maria Gutierrez (through translator):

    Because the waves hit the coast, the bigger plastics gets smaller and smaller. And it's very difficult to remove them, because you have to move very big rocks along the coast and the trash just gets inserted in them. It's becoming part of nature.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Part of nature, part of this place, but what a place, and what a place to find so much trash, for we are in the middle of the South Pacific on Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited spots on Earth, some 2,200 miles from the coast of Chile.

    Called Rapa Nui in the Polynesian language, Easter Island is home to roughly 6,000 residents and some of the most breathtaking sites in the world, including more than 1,000 ancient statues called Moai that date back to as early as 1100 A.D.

    It's a place of beauty and wonder, but increasingly something else.

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    The world is trashing the ocean. And that trash, we are receiving it in our coasts. It's like someone putting a gun in your head and telling you, you must receive that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Pedro Edmunds Paoa is the longtime mayor of Hanga Roa, the island's one town. He says, because Easter Island is located near what's known as a trash vortex in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, floating waste is constantly washing ashore.

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    It's coming from everywhere. It's too much. Every year is more and more.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Also more and more here, people. Easter Island has seen tremendous growth in the last 20 years, especially from tourism, with planes now bringing more than 100,000 visitors every year.

    That's meant new jobs and more money, but also enormous new challenges.

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    This place is like being in a big museum of crystal.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Of crystal?

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    Very fragile. So if you bring in vehicles, you're accelerating the damage on what I call our ancient sacred sites, which is the entire island.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, so more people, more cars, more trash.

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    More trash.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    On an island where virtually everything consumed is imported, local officials now estimate that more than 20 tons of trash are produced every day.

    One problem, space. There's just one garbage dump on an island that's roughly 63 square miles.

    Civil engineer Ana Maria Gutierrez,

  • Ana Maria Gutierrez (through translator):

    We only have one place to deposit our garbage because the majority of the territory is a national park, and the community is growing so fast demographically that there's no space for waste treatment or disposal.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The islanders are taking this seriously, and efforts are under way to alleviate the situation, including this recycling plant, home to mountains of plastics, bottles, electronics and much more.

    Here, waste is crushed, stacked and sorted. Some of it is then shipped or flown to mainland Chile, which governs the island.

    Alexandra Tuquivera runs the plant, which opened in 2011.

  • Alexandra Tuquivera (through translator):

    It's an issue distinctly about changing people's attitude. If we achieved a change in attitude from 20 percent of the people who are already recycling today, we think we can achieve it at 100 percent. But it depends on how we can change those attitudes about this issue.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There is also this, a smaller, but wonderfully creative way to deal with excess waste.

    Mahani Teave grew up on Easter Island, before leaving to study piano and build an ongoing international concert career. She's now back teaching children and helping to build and run a music school, one made of garbage.

  • Mahani Teave:

    We thought, OK, we have the teachers, we have the children, we have the interest. What kind of construction can we do which is in a way will teach the children how to take care of their place and will attend to the problems which we have on this island?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Designed by the American sustainable architect Michael Reynolds, the Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts first opened its doors in 2014.

  • Mahani Teave:

    Two thousand and five hundred tires are in the walls, 40,000 glass bottles, and almost 40,000 cans also. We have the solar panels which provide the electricity. We have rainwater collectors, which provide with 40,000 liters of water.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Today, Teave says the school trains more than 100 students in both classical and traditional music passed down from Rapa Nui ancestors.

  • Mahani Teave:

    We are the descendants of the people who built the statues, and we are a living control. We have our same language which the ancestors spoke back then. We have the culture which they — which was transmitted orally until today. And this is a culture which is dying out because of globalization, because we have not known how to hold onto this.

    And this is such a big treasure which we have, that we have to take care of it now, because it's still alive.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That kind of pride, says Mayor Edmunds, is the key to balancing rapid growth with protection of the natural environment.

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    There is something that you must know about our island. The people of this island are very aware of the brand, of the importance of the culture, of how fragile is the island.

    Rapa Nui, to me, is the perfect example for the world of how you can develop and get to a maximum of utilizing the resources, but at the time — at the same time, how you can destroy it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Here on Easter Island, the ancestors are watching.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in the remote South Pacific.

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