What Works, What Does Not in Solid Waste Management in the Pacific

Waste segregation could be implemented at the household level. Photo credit: ADB

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Prepaid trash bags, container deposit schemes, and semi-aerobic landfills effectively reduce waste in Pacific nations.


Solid waste management remains one of the most challenging environmental issues for Pacific nations. Heavy reliance of most Pacific islands on imported goods creates a one-way flow of materials into small island developing states. Various types of trash, including used packaging, plastics, containers, batteries, electronic (e-waste), and abandoned machinery are accumulating in the islands and polluting the surrounding ocean. More recently, end-of-life-vehicles and disasters triggered by natural hazards have become new sources of waste. The COVID-19 pandemic also increased the medical and pharmaceutical waste burden in the form of personal protective equipment, face masks, and individual packaging.

Limited capacity to dispose of solid waste is linked to geographical isolation, high costs of providing collection and disposal services, small and dispersed populations, and small economies of scale. Landfilling remains the traditional and major approach of waste disposal for most small island developing states yet land availability is a major concern. Addressing the unique barriers to collection, recycling, and disposal of waste in the form of integrated solid waste management is key to effectively reducing waste volume and extending the lifespan of the landfill.

Effective Approaches to Solid Waste Management

Here are 3 critical components of integrated solid waste management that work—and do not—in the Pacific.

1. Waste collection: Prepaid rubbish bags work while other payment methods of waste collection may not.

Municipal waste collection and disposal services in small island developing states always have high costs of providing municipal waste collection and disposal services due to small and dispersed populations. For the same reason, the polluters-pay-scheme does not work well because of challenges in payment collection. In some urban areas, waste collection may stop due to lack of funding.

In a prepaid rubbish bag scheme (or a pay-as-you-throw-system), rubbish bags are sold at an affordable price to households. Such a price would fully or partially cover the waste management fee, including collection and disposal service. A specific type of trash can be placed inside differently colored bags to encourage waste segregation and recycling. Only those prepaid bags with trash are collected during garbage day. Kiribati and Vanuatu have successfully implemented such prepaid rubbish bag system.

Prepaid rubbish bags with trash are regularly collected in South Tarawa, Kiribati.

2. Waste recycling: The container deposit scheme works while the market-based recycling approach does not.

The most recyclable materials worldwide are steel, aluminum cans, PET plastic bottles, cardboard and paper, and glass. These bulky materials are dominant in the waste profile of islands as well. In many countries, recycling of such waste is profitable in the market-based business. However, there is no such industry in many small island developing states. The recyclables cannot be reused locally and must go into the international recycling market. 

Due to the Pacific nations’ geographical isolation, small population, and small economies, as well as the volatile international recycling market, the market-based business of recycling does not generate enough profit for sustainable recycling. Even in a bigger country such as the Solomon Islands, waste pickers only collect aluminum cans and copper from the e-waste because they are compact and can be sold at a price. They neglect the steel, PET bottles, and cardboard, which occupy the largest space in the landfill.

In this case, the container deposit scheme, an approach of "advance recycling fee" based on the “polluter pays” principle, may be suitable. When the container is returned to an authorized redemption center, or retailer in some jurisdictions, the deposit is partly or fully refunded to the redeemer. It is feasible to implement in Pacific nations where most food and beverage containers are imported. Furthermore, the program can be designed to partly or fully cover the waste recycling cost and collection service cost. The scheme has significantly reduced solid waste volume and improved the financial stability of waste collection in countries where it has been implemented, such as Palau and Kiribati.

Palau imports an estimated 20 million pieces of all sorts of containers but only a few bulky bottles or cans or cardboard can be found in the landfill. The container deposit scheme moved a significant number of them from the waste stream into recycling and has eased the financial burden of waste management. In Palau, $0.10 is levied for each imported bottle, aluminum can, cardboard, and other vessel. The government pays back $0.05 to redeemers for each container returned while the remaining fund is used to finance the recycling center and the waste management system. The collected bottles and cans are bailed and packed before they are exported to the international recycling market. The collected cardboards are reused locally as stabilizers for organic composting. The collected old glasses are turned into beautiful handmade glass crafts by local artists. By doing this, the container deposit scheme encourages the circular economy. 

There are only a few PET bottles, cans, or cardboards in the Palau landfill where the container deposit scheme is being implemented.

3. Waste disposal: The semi-aerobic landfill works while the normal sanitary landfill does not.

Landfills are the most common physical facilities in the Pacific for disposing all types of waste. Worldwide, people use conventional sanitary landfills, wherein waste is discarded without negatively affecting the environment and public health. It requires properly spreading the waste in layers and covering it with soil or other inert materials, with adequate monitoring measures in place. However, in many small island developing states, it is difficult to get soil and to evenly spread the waste in cells. Without proper maintenance, such landfill becomes an open dumpsite and gives off methane gas. Illegal burning also happens, causing serious air pollution.

Semi-aerobic landfill using the Fukuoka Method is a proven approach of sanitary landfill in the Pacific. It reduces landfill gas and stabilizes waste faster in Pacific weather conditions, which contributes to climate change mitigation. This approach is successful in Palau. The landfill is separated into a few big cells. Leachate is collected and discharged into the leachate retention pond through collection pipes with properly sized holes. The pipes are laid on the ground and covered in graded rocks. The outlet of the main leachate collection pipe draws fresh air into the surrounding waste. One cell is used until it is full and covered by soil and plantation. This process promotes semi-aerobic microbial activity and speeds up waste decomposition. It significantly reduces the smell and the number of flies, and provides a better landfill environment.

Figure 1: Palau Semi-Aerobic Landfill

Source: Author.


There are two features of solid waste in the Pacific that merit mentioning. First is the little amount of organic (kitchen or food) waste in the landfill, partially because most food in small island developing states is in the form of processed food and whatever food left is fed to animals. This helps manage the odor in the landfill and limits the growth of flies. Thus, the semi-aerobic landfill is adequate to stabilize the waste in the Pacific climate. Second is the potential to reduce plastic bags. In landfills in the Pacific, including the Palau landfill where the container deposit scheme has been implemented, the most common waste is single-use plastic bags. They are not biodegradable and unnecessarily increase the volume of waste that goes into the landfill. Where prepaid rubbish bags are introduced, the opportunity to ban single-use plastic bags should be seized as well.

The overarching connection across examples of what works and what does not in the Pacific is the presence of an enabling environment. Whether for waste collection, recycling or disposal, any approach towards waste reduction requires broad systemic change on the behavior towards waste—beginning with the individual and up to national policy level. As experienced in the Pacific, creating the enabling environment will take time and require strong political will.

In summary, prepaid rubbish bags, container deposit scheme, and semi-aerobic landfill work well in the Pacific. These approaches reduce waste volume, promote waste recycling, extend the lifespan of landfills, and strengthen the financial sustainability of waste management systems. They also promote the circular economy and contribute to climate change mitigation. However, not one waste management solution could be suitable across all scenarios, even in Pacific island states that share broad similarities. Policy makers need to find what works and what does not and integrate these tried-and-tested waste management solutions into their own contexts. 

Jingmin Huang
Director, Water and Urban Development Sector Office, Sectors Group, Asian Development Bank

Jingmin Huang has a professional track record that spans more than 30 years, including 15 years with ADB in the fields of urban planning, water, wastewater and solid waste management and project development. Prior to joining ADB, she was a fellow at St. Hugh’s college in Oxford University, UK and lectured at the Department of Engineering Science, Oxford University. Previously, she worked for 10 years on urban planning and urban infrastructure projects development and implementation in the PRC.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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