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FEATURE STORY June 5, 2019

Meet the Innovator Battling Plastic Waste in Tonga: Mone Lapao’o


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.

Mone Lapao’o works with the Waste Management & Pollution Control Division within Tonga’s Department of Environment. He is leading work to reduce plastic waste impacting the coasts and waters of Tonga through education, policy advice and reform, and all-hands-on-deck efforts to clean up trash.

In Tonga we are very proud of our oceans – we are after all an Island nation – and the ocean and our waters hold great significance for us. This is the biggest reason why we need to look after our oceans. It starts with keeping them clean and healthy.

The main sources of waste here are littering and illegal dumping, especially along coastal areas. Any plastic waste that enters our waterways ultimately flows to the ocean, where it breaks down and enters the food chain as microplastic are consumed by marine life, including endangered species. 

Recent reports have exposed the threat of plastic waste from domestic and international sources, including to nations like ours. From my experience, it’s clear that the fight begins at home – tackling the sources of plastic pollution within our own borders.  

When did you first get involved in trying to address this issue / make a change?

I first got involved in waste management in 2011, as a member of the team leading a community-level program supported through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). In 2014, I joined the Department of Environment under a similar program but one with a broader national reach.

"In Tonga we are very proud of our oceans – we are after all an Island nation – and the ocean and our waters hold great significance for us"
Mone Lapao'o
Tonga’s Department of Environment

What impact do you hope your work/project can achieve?

Through this work, I hope we can start by eliminating the sources of plastic waste within our borders. Most of the waste we find in Tonga’s waterways and oceans is shown to come from Tonga itself, so this makes sense. The majority of this waste is junk and takeaway food packaging.

We are working to better enforce the Waste Management Act, by restricting dumping and ensuring no plastic is incinerated. We are also engaged in direct clean-up exercises to remove physical waste from waterways and coastal areas, like the Beat Pollution Trash Challenge, and awareness via television, radio and visits to schools.

While the going is slow, I know that through a greater focus on awareness – why we need to stem the flow of plastic waste – we can solve this critical issue. It really is all about education.

What motivates/inspires you?

Healthy oceans are critical for the health and beauty of Tonga – this country of which I am very proud. This is probably my biggest motivator for the work I am undertaking.

It also motivates me to plan ahead for the future, or consider areas that require further attention, like waste in the shipping sector: where is it going now, and how should we manage it when ships dock in our waters?

How can people get involved?

People need to be responsible for their own actions, including around littering and illegal dumping. We are trying to help increase this awareness and sense of responsibility through education – there’s much more to be done!

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

Stop littering! Stop irresponsible attitudes!