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FEATURE STORY June 2, 2019

Meet the Innovators Battling Plastic Waste in Kiribati: Raitiata Cati


Marine plastics have put our oceans in danger. By 2050, it is estimated the volume of plastic will be greater than that of fish in the sea. Countries in East Asia and the Pacific contribute the most to marine plastic pollution. For World Oceans Day 2019, we are shining a spotlight on innovators working to stem the tide of marine debris in the epicenter of this crisis.

Raitiata Cati is a Project Officer with the Environment & Conservation Division of the Government of Kiribati. She is part of a team, working across a number of government departments who are behind a new ‘seeds for plastic’ swap scheme that aims to reduce plastic waste.


Tell us about yourself, and your work.

I am from the Kiribati capital, Tarawa. I studied a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Geography and Marine Affairs, and I’ve been working with the Environment & Conservation Division since 2009. When I first started, my key responsibility was to enforce the Environment Act, which regulates pollution. I chose to work in this area because I want to help our small island that is faced with many challenges ranging from poor soil to inadequate ground water supply, and many problems with managing waste.

Right now what I’m really interested in is helping Kiribati through coordinating programs and initiatives that will assist in the reduction of plastic waste that is discarded illegally on land which mostly ends up in our ocean.

Why/how is plastic waste an issue for the ocean surrounding Kiribati?

Our beaches and ocean are becoming a common ground where land based non-organic waste (including plastic waste) converge, especially during spring tides. It means that plastic waste that is continually unmanaged on land is polluting our ocean.

Kiribati’s marine environment is vast, yet the presence of plastic waste in our ocean is polluting our fish, corals and mangroves.  These are the most important ecosystems that give smaller fish a home and shelter. And bivalves and other marine creatures that live in the tidal areas are also affected, too.  Plastic often breaks down into microplastic and stays longer in the environment; becoming a health concern for humans too as they enter our water system and the food chain.

And as plastic keeps piling up, it also becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes – which leads to outbreaks of dengue fever. The Health department encourages the public that their homes and community areas should be clear of waste to help control the growing population of mosquitoes.

I see that the main problem we need to focus on is improving our system for waste collection and facilities that contain waste. Awareness programs are required to target the public (those who live on [the main island of] Tarawa, or on outer islands) to ensure that people coming in and out of Tarawa are using the systems properly. And enforcement is one area that needs to be strengthened too – to help change the habit of simply throwing rubbish away without thought.

Tell us more about the work you are involved in to try and address the marine pollution problem in Kiribati.

In late 2018, we [a big team from Kiribati’s Ministry of Environment, Lands and Agricultural, local councils, together with a team from Taiwan] started a plastic/vegetable exchange program. The idea was to make use of the vegetable and fruit supplies from boarding schools during the school long holidays to support a plastic pollution campaign.

The idea is to provide incentive to encourage the public to help collect plastic waste instead of throwing it away. Once a week, during the four month-long school break, communities collect plastic waste in exchange for vegetables. We saw an average of nearly 60 kilograms of plastic waste exchanged in each session.

When schools returned, we changed vegetables to seedlings as the incentive. The waste collection rate  doubled – and eventually, tripled – and we were receiving an average of 170 kilograms of plastics per exchange. Since the program began, we (the organisations involved) have been receiving more and more enquiries about the program – and the schedule for the next exchange.

In Kiribati we are also working to ban the import of single use plastic shopping bags, which involves the Customs Office and Office of Attorney General. And businesses are also being targeted – encouraging them to sell reusable bags - which our office is supplying – and we are working to mass produce these bags with the help of local tailors and NGOs.

And with schools we have implemented a ‘Plastic Free School’ Initiative, which aims to minimize the use of ice bags in schools. The program has been very successful: within two weeks, schools started shifting away from using ice bags, to instead use water bottles (PET bottles) and cups to sell drinks. With more funding and resources, we hope to reach all schools here in South Tarawa.

There’s still a long way to go; there’s still plenty of waste lying around. But so far we have noticed a big difference in people’s behavior – more and more people are collecting plastic waste. It’s slowly improving.

What motivates/inspires you?

Kiribati is our home. We know our island is a beautiful place. But blocking this view is the presence of plastic waste. Whatever effort that individuals, through their different roles in society, are contributing – either small or big – is what inspires me the most.

How can people get involved?

Integrating activities that tackle plastic pollution in communities – through other Ministries, NGOs and other development programs – is one way to involve more people. However, to minimize plastic waste there is a need to incorporate the wider population; to cover all sources, so that plastic pollution is addressed from every angle.

If there’s one change you’d like to see every person in make to reduce plastic pollution, what would it be?

People need to be more responsible for their waste and mindful that whatever they do have direct impact on our marine resources, human health, environment, and even our economy. Our waste: our responsibility.