SEATTLE, Washington — With a rapidly urbanizing population, the Pacific island nations are entering this decade unprepared for the challenges it is bound to bring. Although their inhabitants produce around 50% less waste than the average Australian each year, poor waste management and underfunded government services render the existing rate of consumption unsustainable in the long run. Upcycling helps sustainable development in the South Pacific in more ways than one.
As rural communities burgeon into towns, many find themselves surrounded by heavily contaminated areas at an understandable risk to health. Simultaneously, this lifestyle incurs high costs. Only 20% of “squatter households” in Fiji can afford three meals a day. Close to a third of all the residents in Vanuatu’s major cities, Honiara and Port Vila, fall below the basic needs poverty line (BNPL). This means that they eschew hunger but lack the wherewithal to have a stable and nutritious diet. However, upcycling promises to change these dynamics.
What is Upcycling?
Upcycling is the process of transforming waste materials or unwanted products into materials of superior quality. This allows consumers to reuse goods that would have otherwise ended up in landfills. As a result, the process curtails pollution and waste. This approach has several advantages compared to the more commonplace process of recycling. Recycling often involves reprocessing the original product into something of lower material value (downcycling). Upcycling, however, creates end-products with either comparable value to the start-product or greater artistic value.
Furthermore, recycling has proven a far more expensive alternative. High collection and transportation costs that exceed the extant value of most recyclable materials have stymied its widespread implementation. For this reason, it has largely been restricted to aluminum cans and valuable metals. Yet, even these operations usually happen on a small scale since mass recycling requires considerable energy investment and sophisticated technology.
With this in mind, upcycling seems much more preferable as the guarantor of regional sustainable development. Its emphasis is on the circular economy whereby resources are preserved for as long as possible. It addresses pollution by both reacting to the waste amassed and educating people in sustainable lifestyles. Similarly, its low starting capital makes it more realistic. At the same time, its relatively high expected returns multiply the income-generating opportunities available to the Pacific island populations.
Moreover, this could prompt large multinational companies to invest in the region. Seeing that Adidas has already experimented with plastic running shoes and Norton Point with upcycled sunglasses, the Pacific island countries may benefit from embracing upcycling in more than one way.
The Fijian Example
Upcycling helps sustainable development not only in theory but also in practice. Thus, for instance, Fiji is home to several impactful social enterprises promoting sustainable living. This propitious climate is explained by the local government’s explicit support for the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. This is evident in the incorporation of such enterprises into the Fiji National Development Plan.
In 2015, Fijian authorities introduced the Micro-Small Business Grant (MSBG) Scheme to connect small entrepreneurs to financial assistance provided by the Fiji Development Bank. Meanwhile, individuals have achieved the fiscally attractive status of sole traders, which helps them preserve a greater proportion of their earnings.
Although considerable work remains, with many still struggling to secure government loans and opening bank accounts due to little grassroots engagement, this work has received international recognition. For example, the Australian government has made a 10-year commitment to the Pacific Women program. It has invested $26 million to “support women’s empowerment in Fiji.”
Thanks to these provisions, Precious Plastic Fiji was launched in 2017 with the aim to construct recycling hubs equipped with plastic shredders, sheet press and other sophisticated machinery across the islands. Another project, Eco-Conscious Fiji, strives to foster a culture of sustainable consumption by selling metal straws, bamboo cutlery and beeswax food wraps as ecofriendly, affordable alternatives to single-use plastics.
The most significant contribution to sustainable living, however, has been from Fusion Hub. This is a social enterprise, upcycling tires, glass and plastic bottles and textiles into furniture and home décor pieces. The Borgen Project interviewed its founder and the 2020 Commonwealth Youth Award recipient, Sagufta Janif. Janif revealed that Fusion Hub has upcycled 1,500 tons of waste since October 2019. Absent the coronavirus pandemic and the concomitant economic downturn, Fusion Hub would have processed 5,000 tons, which is equivalent to almost 8.5% of Fiji’s annual waste output.
Besides helping the environment, the company is employing recycling to empower Fijian women. Across the Pacific, there is meager female participation in the workforce. This, in turn, militates against regional economic growth. Fiji alone is losing 20% of its GDP to limited female involvement in the labor market. Its neighbors are suffering comparable effects. Furthermore, some scholars have posited that this disproportionately exposes women, particularly single mothers, to the risk of poverty and hunger.
To remedy this, Janif told The Borgen Project that Fusion Hub runs two-week capacity training programs, designed to teach women from remote rural communities basic upcycling skills. Some 50 women have already completed this program and are working as either Fusion Hub employees or its supply chain partners. Currently, the firm is in talks with the Fijian Ministry of Education to introduce this program into the school curricula, thereby ensuring that many more youths would both learn about sustainable living and gain important professional skills.
A Cleaner Future
Fiji has certainly been proactive as regards sustainable development. Upcycling helps sustainable development. Yet, as Janif argued, this has more to do with its involvement in the U.N. climate change agenda than with the locals’ willingness to innovate or their environmental awareness. As this spirit is shared by other Pacific islanders, upcycling may be replicated elsewhere. Its de-polluting and developmental potential spurring the region toward a more sustainable future.
– Dan Mikhaylov