A Small Island Takes a Big Stand on Plastic

It’s no surprise that, in an era of rapid change, island nations will be among the first to feel the effects of climate change. A common sentiment shared among the islands of the Pacific is that they suffer a great deal from the phenomenon while contributing the least to the problem. These islands are located in a region that’s sandwiched by two of the world’s largest carbon-emitting countries, the United States and China, which means that any concerns they voice on the global stage often come out as mere whispers.

A traditional meeting house sits on the banks of a lagoon on the sleepy island of Yap. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 
Small Island, Big Step

But this hasn’t deterred some islands from taking concrete steps toward better environmental stewardship. One of these bright spots is Yap, an island state in the Federated States of Micronesia. In July 2014 policymakers there officially enacted a ban on all uses of plastic bags. The ban places steep fines on any shops or individual merchants that distribute plastic bags to customers.

A Significant Part of the Problem

The Yap Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been continuously working to educate the general public about the reasoning behind the ban and the consequences of plastics. This is done in part through publications and notices that can be found at shops around the island. Says one notice:

Plastic grocery bags are responsible for the death of many fish, turtles, dolphins, and other marine animals that are essential to the food security and ecology of Yap. These animals mistake plastic grocery bags for jellyfish and other food sources … Plastic pollution in oceans is an enormous problem globally, and plastic grocery bags are a significant part of this problem.

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Larry Raigetal holds up a reusable shopping bag—woven by women in a nearby village—in its “early design phase.” Raigetal is the founder of a local nonprofit seeking to use traditional knowledge and skills to solve modern-day problems. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
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A young woman weaves a traditional lavalava, commonly worn by women from the outer islands of Yap. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 
Bring Your Own Bag

Capitalizing on this new policy, one particular women’s group in Yap has formed a cooperative that weaves reusable bags out of local materials to promote a more sustainable way of shopping. The bags are sold to retailers in bulk and are available in solid colors or ornate patterns to appeal to both residents and souvenir-hunting tourists.

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An elder watches carefully as her apprentice weaves a skirt made from strips of banana leaf. This is the primary way that traditional skills such as weaving are passed down from one generation to the next. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
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Master and apprentice take a closer look at the pattern designs during the weaving process. Not only does this process involve a high mastery of skill, but it also reinforces understanding of math and science. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 
Making a Statement to the World 

True, Yap’s islands are tiny and their relative use of plastics is minuscule compared to almost every other country in the world, but the ban is still considered by many to be a significant step. Though laws like this one exist in other parts of the world, Yap, given its size and isolated location, serves as a great example of how such a policy can have cross-sectoral benefits. In this case, not only does the reduction of plastics have obvious environmental benefits, but it’s also opened the door to a new (albeit niche) market for reusable products. In doing so, it’s helping to perpetuate Micronesian culture by giving groups of local women another reason to continue practicing traditional weaving and other crafts.

Ultimately, the policy serves as a statement from one group of Pacific Islanders to the world—that they’re doing their part to protect the environment.

One of the elders in the women's house works to isolate individual threads of fabric, which will eventually be woven together to make a lavalava. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
One of the elders in the women’s house works to isolate individual threads of fabric, which will eventually be woven together to make a lavalava. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
For the younger girls in the village who are not quite yet ready to learn traditional weaving, there are many other crafts that can be made and used in everyday life. Here, an 8-year old girl works to make a basket out of used coffee wrappers. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
For the younger girls in the village who are not quite yet ready to learn traditional weaving, there are many other crafts that can be made for use in everyday life. Here, an eight-year old girl works to make a basket out of used coffee wrappers. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 
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Human Journey

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Meet the Author
A photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer, Dan has spent his career trying to better understand the nexus between people in remote regions of the Asia/Pacific and their rapidly changing environment. Dan is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the Associated Press, and the Guardian. He believes firmly in the power of visual storytelling as a vessel for advocacy and awareness, which helps to better inform policy makers. In 2016, Dan started the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative seeking to empower the next generation of storytellers from the Pacific Islands. Additionally, Dan is a crewmember for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, and a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. He received his Masters Degree from Harvard University