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.
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.
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.