The Cook Islands is a sovereign island nation in free association with New Zealand. The main island, Rarotonga, is home to 70% of the nation’s estimated 17,800 people. Rarotonga is a small island, measuring approximately 26 square miles, with only one airport to accommodate its primary source of income: tourism.
Tourism constitutes more than half of the nation’s GDP and is the main stimulant of economic growth. However, it also contributes to the growing problem of waste management in the Cook Islands.
Waste collection is provided to all households Monday through Saturday by two private contractors operating in conjunction with the Ministry of Infrastructure Cook Islands (ICI). Businesses are responsible for disposing of their own waste in the sanitary landfill located in Avarua, the most populous district of Rarotonga and the nation’s capital.
The governments of Australia and New Zealand, along with support from the private sector, provide aid to improve the conditions of waste management in the Cook Islands. The Waste Management Facility, managed by ICI, employs three staff members at the landfill and another five at the recycling center. The sanitary landfill was designed in 2006 with an intended lifespan of 15 years but has now reached its capacity.
Avarua is also home to four operational incinerators used to burn garbage, two of which are used solely for airline waste and medical waste and none of which possess emissions control technology. In addition, open burning in backyards and public spaces is a common practice amongst Cook Islanders.
This is a problem, as open burning and the resulting emissions can be detrimental to human and environmental health. Open burning has been proven to emit significantly more harmful pollutants than municipal incinerators, releasing twice as many furans, 17 times as many dioxins and 40 times more ash, as well as carbon monoxide and dioxide, lead, arsenic, mercury, acid vapors and carcinogenic tars.
This not only because is there no emission control, but because open fires burn at lower temperatures, inhibiting complete combustion of the waste being burned. They also operate closer to the ground, increasing the risk of exposure to harmful effects.
Tourism is a major contributor to the abundance of refuse which has made it exceedingly difficult to control in the Cook Islands. However, the income generated from tourism is needed to stimulate the growth of the waste management system. After all, the standard set for tourists has been the principal catalyst for discussion over the development of waste management in the Cook Islands. The government is looking to break this waste cycle by improving facility quality.
– Jaime Viens