What do litter survey results tell us about Vanuatu’s plastic bans?

Vanuatu Environmental Science Society has been conducting litter surveys in Port Vila since 2015 as part of our cleanup programs, and this data has been collated to show change in the recorded items over eight years. The results show that single use plastic bans have been effective in reducing damaging plastics in our environment.

Vanuatu implemented nationwide bans for several single use plastic items in July 2018 and December 2019 to reduce the number of these items being littered into the environment. This included thin plastic shopping bags, polystyrene takeaway food containers and plastics straws in the first instance, and added plastic cutlery and tableware, vegetable nets, plastic egg cartons and artificial flowers as a later measure. These items were selected because they were commonly found in the environment and were often making their way into the ocean.

Cleanup event participants with their collected litter and datasheets at Ifiria Point in 2022

VESS has been involved in many cleanup events since 2015, and to ensure that there is always a long-term value in addition to the cleaning itself, data has been collected on the type of items found. The data from 20 events (some of which were held at multiple locations) were compared and analysed to see if the litter recorded in the early surveys was different to the litter items collected recently.

As there have been a variety of methods used to collect the data over time, the best way to measure change was to count the number of each banned item as a proportion of the total number of items collected at each event. Because of this, data from events of different sizes, locations and distances can be compared. Small broken fragments of litter were excluded from calculations as they were not always collected and counted precisely, due to their small size.

The results showed that there has been a dramatic change in the amount of these banned items being collected between 2015 and 2023. The graph below shows the percentage of banned items as a proportion of all recorded litter, with vertical lines to show the dates of the bans in 2018 and 2019. Before the ban, these items made up 25 to 35% of the number of items collected, and it has steadily decreased since then. In the latest survey in 2023, banned items made up just 2% of recorded litter.

This an encouraging result for Vanuatu and shows what can be achieved when people are determined to make a positive change for their environment. In response to this news Hon Ralph Regenvanu, Minister for Climate Change said, “Marine plastic pollution along with the biodiversity loss and climate change are the most pressing environmental crises facing our generation. Whilst we need to address all these issues at the global level, there are actions everybody can take at the local level too. Vanuatu has been and will continue to be a strong advocate for taking action to stop plastic pollution entering our oceans. Introducing bans on single use, unnecessary and problematic plastics is one example. It is encouraging to see the success of the bans reflected in the data from VESS’s cleanup ups. But there is still work to do and I encourage everyone to dispose of rubbish in the right place, reduce their plastic footprint and take part in cleanups through the month of September”.

When this data was broken down to show the change for each item, thin plastic shopping bags have shown the biggest change since the bans began, with a decrease from 17% to just 1%.

Some items continue to be recorded in litter surveys despite being banned. There is evidence that short plastic straws attached to small juice boxes and milk cartons are continuing to be littered into the environment, as well as the small plastic forks that can sometimes be found in packets of noodles. This may be contributing to the number of these items that have been recorded recently.

Short plastic straw observed in the 2023 litter survey

As VESS continues to monitor litter items through our cleanup events, we look forward to seeing further improvements in reduction of plastic waste in Vanuatu that will benefit our people, ocean, flora and fauna.

Our 2023 International Coastal Cleanup will be held in the third week in September. Watch out for announcement about the event soon.