86,000 bottles of water on the wall: Tonga struggles with post-volcano waste problem


Since the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted in Tonga in January, killing four people, the Pacific nation has received more than 200 shipping containers of aid supplies, including 86,000 bottles of water.

After the HMAS Canberra arrived from Australia, bringing with it two helicopters and more than 417 tonnes of equipment and supplies, the prime minister of Tonga, Siaosi Sovaleni, gave a speech thanking Australia for its help.

“The [international] assistance brought just over 114,600 litres [of water] that came in plastic bottles meaning about 86,000 water bottles of 1.5 litres,” he said. “This number is staggering because of the time frame, within one month.”

While the aid has been essential and welcome, especially given concerns about ashfall affecting drinking water supplies, it has left Tonga with a significant issue: what to do with the waste.

Since the tsunami, in the worst affected villages and the halls in Nuku’alofa where people have been living since moving from the islands in Ha’apai, rubbish bins are filled with plastic water bottles.

There is no recycling collection in Tonga, which means plastic waste ends up in landfill.

Tonga’s prime minister Siaosi Sovaleni (centre) and the Australian high commissioner to Tonga, Rachael Moore (centre left). Australia is supporting Tongan relief efforts. Photograph: LSIS Daniel Goodman

Tonga has very limited space for landfill. The country’s only rubbish tip, which has been in operation since 2006, has just four cells for storing rubbish, with each cell meant to be large enough to house at least 20 years’ worth of waste from across the country. The second one is filling up fast.

The volcanic eruption and tsunami earlier this year, which the government called “unprecedented” disasters, have not helped.

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

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 of clothes – were collected.

“There were huge boulder rocks. We still don’t know how they were brought in by the waves but these rocks were massive. They were huge … we didn’t have the equipment to clear them,” said Lola Liava’a Tonga, the manager of Administration and Projects at Tonga Waste Authority Ltd.

Some work to remove and recycle waste has started. Last month, volunteers from the No Pelesitiki (plastic) campaign spent two Saturdays collecting plastic waste from more than 1,500 households, which were compacted, wrapped into plastic bales and loaded on the HMAS Canberra for disposal in Australia.

The founder of the No Pelesitiki Campaign, Eleni Leveni Tevi, said people responded strongly to the collection and are keen to see it become a regular occurrence.

Huge quantities of plastic waste have ended up in Tapuhia landfill. Photograph: Leki Lao

“In fact, a lot of people are already asking when will be the next one. They are continuing to segregate their plastic waste but when they put it out for the normal pickup, it doesn’t get picked up.”

But No Pelesitiki doesn’t have the means to do regular plastic recycling collection, without the money to pay for labour or an appropriate collection vehicle.

“When No Pelesitiki doesn’t have the means to do that, it discourages people to continue with the segregation,” Tevi said. “We resort back to leaving it as mixed rubbish which is canceling the whole effort of trying to raise awareness on segregating the plastic.

“All these plastic wastes end up at Tapuhia landfill.

“We have the idea and 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.”

The HMAS Canberra brought with it two balers to be donated to Tonga’s Waste Authority so that rubbish can be compressed. They are being housed at Tapuhia Landfill recycling centre, which also houses a plastic shredder and two glass crushers, also from donors.

The Waste Authority says it will be rolling out a new recycling service to collect plastic bottles and glass bottles, as well as training and support for the service on how to use the balers when lockdown is lifted.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Tonga. “Like all things, it won’t happen overnight. We have been working on it for years now. We focus a lot on the kids. The youth and the kids, I think are beginning to get the picture and they can go home and teach their parents. Public awareness programs do help as well to educate the public and [get them to] not throw rubbish in the sea.”

“There needs to be a holistic approach to tackle the issue with plastic waste. Waste is everybody’s business.”