Plastic water bottles threaten to overwhelm Tonga’s landfill capability as country cleans up

    After January’s volcanic eruption, Tonga is faced with a tidal wave of plastic bottles.

    Photo / Global Environment Facility – Small Grants Programme Tonga (Facebook)

    In the wake of the disaster there was a desperate need for clean drinking water.

    The kingdom was sent 200 shipping containers of aid, including 114,600 litres of water.

    The water came in 86,000 1.5 litre bottles. Those bottles are empty and now need to be dealt with.

    However, the kingdom’s plastic recycling scheme is not fully resourced, so the only place the bottles can be put is into rubbish bins and then as landfill.

    According to a report in the Guardian, the country’s only rubbish tip, which opened at Tapuhia in 2006, has just four cells for storing rubbish. Each cell is meant to be large enough to house at least 20 years’ worth of waste from across the country. The second one is already filling up.

    However, the problem is not just plastic bottles.

    Last month, volunteers from the No Pelesitiki (plastic) campaign spent two Saturdays collecting plastic waste from more than 1500 households. The rubbish was wrapped into plastic bales and loaded on the HMAS Canberra for disposal in Australia.

    The founder of the No Pelesitiki Campaign, Eleni Leveni Tevi, told the Guardian people responded strongly to the collection.

    As well as plastic rubbish from relief efforts, the tsunami produced huge quantities of rubbish from household furniture and inorganic waste.

    In the worst-affected village of Kanokupolu, located on the west end of Tongatapu, five truckloads of rubbish – including aluminium sheets, wood and drenched suitcases full of clothes – were collected.

    No Pelesitiki does not have the means to do regular plastic recycling collection, without the money to pay for labour or a dedicated vehicle.

    This discouraged people from separating their plastic from the rest of the rubbish.

    “All these plastic wastes end up at Tapuhia landfill,” Tevi told the Guardian.

    “We have a plan on how to tackle Tonga’s plastic issue, we have the passion, but we can just do so much. We are all volunteers with full-time jobs or attending schools with only the weekends to attend to No Pelesitiki activities,” he said.

    “There’s quite [a lot] of logistics around this work that needs daily commitment.”

    Australia has donated two balers for compressing rubbish to Tonga’s Waste Authority. They are based at the Tapuhia recycling centre, which also houses a plastic shredder and two glass crushers.

    The Waste Authority said it would be rolling out a new recycling service to collect plastic bottles and glass bottles, as well as training people to use the balers.

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