We had been living in Rarotonga just a week when a moment occurred that has stuck with me since. Sadly, not for a good reason. This same thing has happened again over the last nine months of living here.
While enjoying the peace and sunshine at a beautiful beach in the south of Rarotonga, I noticed a wee scuttle not far from me. On closer inspection, I realised what I was looking at was a crab. Problem is, this little crab had decided to take up permanent residence in a clear plastic water bottle lid.
The second time I saw this was just a few weeks ago. Another little guy made his new home in a bright pink piece of plastic piping. My heart broke again. Plastic and nature don’t mix.
The first time we saw this my husband and I, both shocked by what we were seeing, tried to persuade the wee crab to move into a more ‘natural’ home (much to other beachgoers strange looks). We chose a range of shells in a mix of shapes and sizes to tempt him to relocate. Mr Crab would not budge from his plastic abode.
The two incidents have stuck with me to this day. I realise that this is on a very small scale. But it brings back home the reality of what we humans are doing to our natural environment, and the effects we are having on animals and ecosystems all around the world. Of all the millions of shell homes these crabs could have chosen, they were living in manmade plastic. They shouldn’t even have the option.
I was saddened. And also motivated to look at my own plastic use.
I would like to think that I have always been pretty earth conscious and tried to help when I can. I've always recycled. When you have a care for living naturally and eliminating toxins and plastics in your body and home it generally comes hand and hand with care about the environment and living more sustainably. We are all interconnected.
“The environment it is in us, not outside us. The trees are our lungs, the rivers our bloodstream.
We are all interconnected, and what you do to the environment ultimately you do to yourself”
On witnessing these two crab moments, I started to think about waste here in Rarotonga. What does a small island do with all its rubbish and recycling?
Unfortunately it is common to see burning rubbish, including plastics, all around the island. But education is key and now many on the island are raising awareness of the damage burning waste can do to the environment and our bodies.
Because of the country’s small size and isolation, rubbish and recycling have significant costs for the environment and financially. The Cook Islands face huge challenges around managing this. The Rarotonga Waste Facility was opened in 2005 and is designed as a purpose-built solution to Rarotonga's waste management needs. But only until 2020!
Recycling is stockpiled at the waste centre, and then shipped off to other countries to be recycled. Like many places around the world, there is no recycling plant in Rarotonga. Despite these efforts being made, Rarotonga is being inundated with plastic waste.
I realised, like many others, I am sure, that for years I have been guilty of focussing on recycling plastic and justifying the use of it because “I recycle”. The out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy really hits home when you are in such a small place.
Instead, the emphasis needs to be on REDUCING plastic and waste. If we don’t create it in the first place then we don’t need to use precious resources, time, space and energy to recycle it.
With the huge amounts of tourists that travel to and from Rarotonga every year the problem of excess waste is higher than other Pacific countries. Here are some easy ways to REDUCE your plastic usage while traveling or even in your own home town.
1. Grab a Bag
Just in case you have been living under a rock for the last 10 years and are still accepting plastic bags as you shop - Stop! Plastic bags don’t biodegrade. They photodegrade, which means they break down into smaller and smaller pieces. They are then accidentally consumed by our marine animals. They also contaminate soils and waterways as toxins leach into the earth. One plastic bag can take between 400-1000 years to break down. Instead, invest in some reusable bags (which are stronger and hold more) to take to the markets or shops.
2. Say 'No thanks' to plastic straws
The idea of sitting with feet in the sand sipping a Pina Colada appeals to all of us. The problem with this scenario is that your cocktail glass contains at least a straw or two. Plastic straws are a huge problem in tourist countries and areas. For something we generally use for less than an hour, it can take 100 years for that straw to breakdown. We don’t use straws to drink at home so why do we need them when we are out? If you really need to use a straw there are some other great options out there from reusable stainless, bamboo and paper straws. So next time you are ordering your drink, no excuse – refuse the plastic
3. Make thoughtful buying choices
Plastic smoothie cups, plastic straws, coffees cups, plastic food containers, plastic drink bottles, plastic knives and forks, plastic plates, tiny plastic tomato sauce packets ... the list goes on. Local markets are a huge part of the island culture, bringing people together to enjoy and celebrate life and share tasty island delicacies. But food markets are a plastic minefield. When visiting the markets, be aware of how your food is being served. Many stall holders are now making more sustainable choices to package and serve their food, using alternatives such as bamboo and paper. Buy from these stalls. We as consumers have the power to make choice and to make change through our actions.
4. Pack reusable coffee cups
We have a number of lovely coffee places here in Raro and with the lagoon at your fingertip, a takeaway coffee beachside seems like a great idea. My new motto though is… no cup - no coffee. Either take the time to sit still, on your own or with a friend enjoying company at a cafe, or take your reusable coffee cup with you. If you are traveling, and enjoy a takeaway coffee, purchase a good quality reusable mug, pop it in your suitcase and enjoy your takeaway coffees knowing you are adding zero coffee cups to the waste pile. Trust me - it tastes even better.
5. Eat real, eat local
If you are aware of eating a healthy real food diet you will have already noticed the huge reduction in throwaway plastic wrapping. Real food doesn’t come in a packed box with layers of plastic. Whether you live here or are traveling, ditch the processed, nutritionless packaged foods for real food and enjoy the diverse range of fresh locally grown produce. Good for your body, good for the environment and good for the locals who you support by purchasing their products.
6. Recharge your water bottle
If you are visiting Rarotonga, it is recommended not to drink the water straight from the tap. Luckily, most villages around the island have filtered water stations free for all to use. Take your glass or stainless steel bottles and re-fill these at the stations. You will be saving money and piles of plastic water bottles heading to the Waste Station.
Sadly, the World Economic Forum predicts there will be more pieces of plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 if we continue living the way we are. We must all do our bit to break the pattern. Regardless of where you live in the world, we all need to step up and be part of the plastic-free revolution. There is always more we can each do. Start with small steps. If you are plan to travel to the beautiful Cook Islands (or any country as a matter of fact) do your part to be a conscientious traveler. Aim to leave only wonderful memories behind.