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A Small Island Takes a Big Stand on Plastic

It’s no surprise that, in an era of rapid change, island nations will be among the first to feel the effects of climate change. A common sentiment shared among the islands of the Pacific is that they suffer a great deal from the phenomenon while contributing the least to the problem. These islands are located in a region that’s sandwiched by two of the world’s largest carbon-emitting countries, the United States and China, which means that any concerns they voice on the global stage often come out as mere whispers.

A traditional meeting house sits on the banks of a lagoon on the sleepy island of Yap.  (Photo by Daniel Lin)
A traditional meeting house sits on the banks of a lagoon on the sleepy island of Yap. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 
Small Island, Big Step

But this hasn’t deterred some islands from taking concrete steps toward better environmental stewardship. One of these bright spots is Yap, an island state in the Federated States of Micronesia. In July 2014 policymakers there officially enacted a ban on all uses of plastic bags. The ban places steep fines on any shops or individual merchants that distribute plastic bags to customers.

A Significant Part of the Problem

The Yap Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been continuously working to educate the general public about the reasoning behind the ban and the consequences of plastics. This is done in part through publications and notices that can be found at shops around the island. Says one notice:

Plastic grocery bags are responsible for the death of many fish, turtles, dolphins, and other marine animals that are essential to the food security and ecology of Yap. These animals mistake plastic grocery bags for jellyfish and other food sources … Plastic pollution in oceans is an enormous problem globally, and plastic grocery bags are a significant part of this problem.

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Larry Raigetal holds up a reusable shopping bag—woven by women in a nearby village—in its “early design phase.” Raigetal is the founder of a local nonprofit seeking to use traditional knowledge and skills to solve modern-day problems. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
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A young woman weaves a traditional lavalava, commonly worn by women from the outer islands of Yap. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 
Bring Your Own Bag

Capitalizing on this new policy, one particular women’s group in Yap has formed a cooperative that weaves reusable bags out of local materials to promote a more sustainable way of shopping. The bags are sold to retailers in bulk and are available in solid colors or ornate patterns to appeal to both residents and souvenir-hunting tourists.

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An elder watches carefully as her apprentice weaves a skirt made from strips of banana leaf. This is the primary way that traditional skills such as weaving are passed down from one generation to the next. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
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Master and apprentice take a closer look at the pattern designs during the weaving process. Not only does this process involve a high mastery of skill, but it also reinforces understanding of math and science. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 
Making a Statement to the World 

True, Yap’s islands are tiny and their relative use of plastics is minuscule compared to almost every other country in the world, but the ban is still considered by many to be a significant step. Though laws like this one exist in other parts of the world, Yap, given its size and isolated location, serves as a great example of how such a policy can have cross-sectoral benefits. In this case, not only does the reduction of plastics have obvious environmental benefits, but it’s also opened the door to a new (albeit niche) market for reusable products. In doing so, it’s helping to perpetuate Micronesian culture by giving groups of local women another reason to continue practicing traditional weaving and other crafts.

Ultimately, the policy serves as a statement from one group of Pacific Islanders to the world—that they’re doing their part to protect the environment.

One of the elders in the women's house works to isolate individual threads of fabric, which will eventually be woven together to make a lavalava. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
One of the elders in the women’s house works to isolate individual threads of fabric, which will eventually be woven together to make a lavalava. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
For the younger girls in the village who are not quite yet ready to learn traditional weaving, there are many other crafts that can be made and used in everyday life. Here, an 8-year old girl works to make a basket out of used coffee wrappers. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
For the younger girls in the village who are not quite yet ready to learn traditional weaving, there are many other crafts that can be made for use in everyday life. Here, an eight-year old girl works to make a basket out of used coffee wrappers. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 
Read More by Daniel Lin

 

 

Comments

  1. Tami DeRose
    Bay Shore Long Island New York
    February 25, 4:25 pm

    I read the wonderful comments of enlightened individuals on the USA map, but I was most impressed by Larry Raigetal on the tiny island of Yap part of Micronesia, located in the middle of the Pacific between two giant waste producing countries, the US and China. They succeeded in getting their gov.to ban plastic bags. This really hit home. Supermarkets have tried on a volunteer basis, but customers are still making the wrong choice. Sad to say, I am also Guilty. The efforts of the Island people of Yap and the voyage of Hukule’a have stopped me in my tracks. From this day forward no more plastic bags taken home from the supermarket for me.

  2. Miguel Deleon
    Bay Islands of Honduras
    December 3, 2015, 6:01 pm

    My name is Miguel and I am from the island of Guanaja which is part of the Bay Islands of Honduras. I am looking for any information or assistance on how I can get our island locals to understand that their home needs to be protected before it is too late.

    Long story short, our island did without land motor vehicles for generations and only in the past couple of decades have they been introduced to the island. The island currently only has one paved road which is about 4 kilometers. Unfortunately, the economic situation has started to weigh on the locals and see cars, roads and a cruise ship port as their only options for more tourists. In the past few months I’ve begun a petition to go “car-free” before we get to the point of no return. I created the following website (still trying to figure how to best leverage it) to not only show who we are as a people but why we need to protect the island we call home. The sad part is that the locals (a minority) have seen my efforts as being against “progress”. I am hoping that your group can help me in the best way to educate my people and provide options of maybe getting groups to visit and hold lectures. Maybe hearing it from “tourists” that they so heavily covet and organizations, like yours, might do the trick. Thank you in advance and I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Here is the website: guanajathegreenisland.com

    Please feel free to leave a comment, it would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Wehns Billen
    Pohnpei, FSM
    July 24, 2015, 8:50 pm

    Hats off to our sister sate of Yap State for their positive reactions to the issue of Climate Changes by enacting the laws banning plastic shopping back and provided sound alternatives to offset any impacts on the shoppers… Thank you Yap State.

  4. Heather Sapelbweyar
    Philadelphia, Pa
    July 8, 2015, 5:39 pm

    Fantastic!! Small steps together can bring big change! Now, is there a way to globally market the bags to encourage reusable bags and bring an economic opportunity to the island of Yap? Looks like I need to call some cousins!

  5. Edwina Rangamar
    Concord, CA. 94520
    July 8, 2015, 2:18 am

    I am so proud of you, YAP and the EPA for coming together with a very smart idea. you even have your answer to substitute the very product you banned. Good job and i applaud you the government of Yap. I’m originally from Saipan and i hope they follow after you…YAP….

  6. Vid Raatior
    Hilo, HI (pacificfocused.org)
    July 7, 2015, 2:02 pm

    Always very proud of our indigenous people of Micronesia in our quest to preserve our ways. Way to go, Waab. Keep up the leadership, Larry Raigetal of waagey.org.

  7. Angie Tarkong
    Palau
    May 5, 2015, 1:26 am

    Great steps taken by the Yap Island to protect the marine and land environment from plastic pollution. I think Palau can also take measures toward plastic free environment for it’s island. If Palau can enact a large scale conservation for it’s water, then passing a law to ban plastic usage would be a drop in a bucket for them.

  8. Loic Lopez
    Bali, Indonesia
    May 1, 2015, 2:47 am

    Wonderful, this needs to happen in more and more places, it is possible. Here at Green School in Bali an enthusiastic group of young people are campaigning to make a change! You can help them to get Bali plastic bag free by signing their petition on: http://www.avaaz.org/plasticbali, and follow their progress on their Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/byebyeplasticbags

  9. Saketh Upadhya
    Bangalore
    April 11, 2015, 9:27 am

    This is a good progress. Slowly and hopefully, this will occur on a larger scale though it will be very tough.

  10. Chris Green
    Savona, B.C., Canada
    April 11, 2015, 4:09 am

    There is some very attractive weaving work shown in these photos.
    Thanks to all who are making this possible.

  11. Mercy Tisa
    Saipan, CNMI
    April 10, 2015, 11:35 am

    Congratulation & great job Yapese Law makers. You set an excellent act before us all to learn & follow

  12. Onu
    Samaru
    April 10, 2015, 10:57 am

    Good work, pls keep it up.

  13. Wilhelm Kleim
    April 10, 2015, 6:13 am

    This is effektive law in Bhutan since over a decade

  14. Jeemer Lippwe
    NYC
    April 9, 2015, 10:59 pm

    Raigetal,

    I have been asked by friends abroad on how they could get a YAP bag. Please let me know

  15. Blandina Yangilmau
    PALAU
    April 9, 2015, 9:02 pm

    Well done job! Congratulations to the wise people of Yap who are protecting the environment and at the same time creating jobs for the people.

  16. Jean Bertrand Azapmo
    Pohnpei, FSM
    April 9, 2015, 7:40 pm

    This is great initiative with spillover effects into the other sectors of the economy such as trade and tourism as well as job creation and revenue distribution for the people involved. This shows that it doesn’t take much to trigger economic development in Small Island Developing States.

  17. Chuanfu Xiao
    Shanghai,China
    April 9, 2015, 10:05 am

    Good work

  18. Chuanfu Xiao
    Shanghai,China
    April 9, 2015, 10:03 am

    意料之外

  19. Senjie
    United States
    April 9, 2015, 9:49 am

    Nice report! This symbolizes that every individual can make a difference.

  20. vivienne blake
    France
    April 9, 2015, 9:30 am

    When we lived in Seychelles – another small nation -in the early 1990s, this was standard practice. They also made items such as sun hats from plaited plastic bags, and the tourists bought them in their thousands. Good for Yap, too.

  21. André Pienaar
    Cape Town, South Africa
    April 9, 2015, 8:57 am

    Here in South Africa used tea bags are used in the manufacturing of dolls and other household items. The are stitched together to make a workable “cloth.”

  22. george curtis
    April 9, 2015, 8:46 am

    I grew up in yap in the 50s. Even then they had a trash problem. The ocean was the dump. Not to bad if it was biodegradable but as the western world took over there was more non degradable things thrown in the water. At least this is a good step and I hope they have taken care of the rest of the trash.

  23. anitha
    male'
    April 9, 2015, 8:39 am

    Great Job.. Eco friends..

  24. Patterson K. Shed
    FSM
    April 9, 2015, 8:12 am

    Truly Yapese truly unique. Congratulation in order for Waa’gey for a practical local example in support of sustaining traditional knowledge to respond to the plastic pollution problem. I am especially glad to note one feedback interested for pricing order for these hand made reusable bags from Asheville, NC and hope that materialized to a partnership. A big round of applause to Larry Raigetal for championing this initiative. As the National Coordinator for the GEF Small Grants Programme-FSM we are very glad to support and fund this project.

  25. Guy von Earth
    South Africa
    April 9, 2015, 6:23 am

    They should knit a massive bag which we can use to suffocate all corporations, convenience product manufacturers and politicians, so that the rest of the world can live in a non-toxic environment.. Else we should adapt to a radioactive and polluted earth.

  26. kaveh
    tehran iran
    April 9, 2015, 3:35 am

    i would say that it is great job . it can be said that it is one of the most significant things i have ever seen . i would like to say thank you so much.

  27. Jamie
    April 9, 2015, 3:22 am

    Every piece of plastic ever made is still with us. Recycling helps- but not really when you learn that a plastic can only be recycled a certain amount of times and then it is considered trash. {Same with all recyclables, actually} This movement is a pretty good step, as realistically, nothing else can really be done but utilize what is already made and our conscience efforts of reducing plastic production {yeah right- thats my pipe dream*}

  28. C. Gelineau
    Detroit, Michigan
    April 9, 2015, 1:44 am

    Great effort. However plastic bags are recyclable I believe. Some grocery stores in our area collect them. I usually ask for paper bags but a lot of people take their own bags when they shop, especially at Aldi’s where bags are not provided at all.

  29. Tiffany
    China
    April 9, 2015, 1:11 am

    This also is what we should do. Just prohibit some market from distributing plastic bags to customers freely, I think, is not enough in which I live.

  30. Harish
    India
    April 9, 2015, 1:04 am

    Imagine the benefits for India if this is done here… lower pollution..and millions of jobs in weaving bags …. YAP leads the way..if only we all follow…

  31. Mojtaba
    Iran
    April 8, 2015, 11:59 pm

    I’m happy that some regions are taking practical steps to protect the environment. I have utmost respect for these people and I ought to say THANK YOU.

  32. Lisa Murray
    Melbourne
    April 8, 2015, 11:58 pm

    Thank God! That you are making bags. It’s a very good idea! Well done to you all. Lisa Murray x x x

  33. chennakesava singh
    Hyderabad, India
    April 8, 2015, 11:53 pm

    It is an excellent exemplary act of the island YAP. I salute them for their high ideal.concer n for environmental protection, which the so called advanced Countries are honouring more in breach..My heart felt congratulations to the people of YAP.

  34. Lisa Murray
    Melbourne
    April 8, 2015, 11:53 pm

    Thank God! That you are making bags. It’s a very good idea! Well done to you all.

  35. Anita Adams
    asheville, NC
    April 8, 2015, 10:09 pm

    I’ve been looking for a solution for a local food bank who distributes foos to children in our area using plastic grocery bags. They’re open to an alternative ..and this would be an excellent choice. I would welcome pricing information on approximately 3,000, 6,0000 and 10,000 bags. Thank you. Kind regards, Anita Adams

  36. Kayt R
    Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA
    April 8, 2015, 9:29 pm

    What an inspiring story! I have been wondering what I can do for some time to address littering issues we have here in Middle Tennessee and wasn’t sure if I could make a difference. I felt like it was difficult to change people’s habits and mind sets. After reading this, I’m inspired to go after it and at least do something!

  37. Niri
    trinidad and Tobago
    April 8, 2015, 8:58 pm

    This story shows that no matter how small a nation is, each person can make a difference when it comes to reducing waste and preserving the environment. I wish the government of my country would do something like this.

  38. Vinn
    Ellicott City
    April 8, 2015, 7:46 pm

    Wonderfull I dea by the Yapese they are the true heroes to save the Environmental issues.

  39. Sydney Tudela
    Phoenix, AZ
    April 8, 2015, 6:03 pm

    I have also the greatest respect for the Yapese people for their AWE-INSPIRING movement. I wish the other neighboring Islands — ACTUALLY the whole entire NATION would practice this movement for the respect of OUR WORLD, OUR NATURE, OUR ENVIRONMENT. WITH THE MOST RESPECT TO THE ISLAND OF YAP, The EPITOME of a TRUE ISLANDER..!

  40. Larry Duncan
    Toronto Canada
    April 8, 2015, 5:54 pm

    Contrast the Yap story with that of Florida where recycling in many areas incurs a surcharge and where the governor has banned terms such as sea level rise and global warming from the public servants vocabulary under threat of dismissal.

  41. Rob Roberts
    United States
    April 8, 2015, 4:45 pm

    C’mon North America, we can do this!

  42. Andy
    seoul
    April 8, 2015, 4:02 pm

    those coffee packages are korean. Korean instant coffee is famous, but I had no idea that people in yap drink korean coffee

  43. John Cacavas
    Los Angeles
    April 8, 2015, 3:37 pm

    Nice bags. I would buy one and help support the cause if they were made available on sites such as Amazon or eBay.

  44. Tamara Randolph
    Washington State
    April 8, 2015, 1:18 pm

    Inspiring! Beautiful, useful products using readily available materials. No more plastic in the ocean around this island! May it be so for the other islands and every continent besides.

  45. bill newton
    uk dt2 8sq
    April 8, 2015, 10:52 am

    great news i hope the idea spreads

  46. Madlina L.Grong
    Guam, Micronesia
    April 8, 2015, 9:09 am

    Excellent! Many thanks to the author for sharing this story!

  47. Lori Lewis
    Wilton, Maine
    April 8, 2015, 8:08 am

    Why am I not surprised that Yap is taking a leading role in this situation?!

  48. Donna Sires
    Oregon (previously Kosrae)
    April 8, 2015, 2:00 am

    I am so glad to see activities like this. It helps the environment, the economy and self esteem. Great work!

  49. Diego Tabilo
    Chile
    April 7, 2015, 10:54 pm

    Every little grain of sand is important.
    An example to other islands!

  50. Frank GRIFFIN
    Samoa
    April 7, 2015, 10:04 pm

    This is great to see – the Pacific islanders have for a very long time tried their best to deal with this issue but have had little support. Hopefully this initiative can have a rippling effect right across the region. All the very best!

  51. Jeemer Lippwe
    NYC
    April 7, 2015, 9:40 pm

    Larry, good job my dear friend!

  52. Sabine Janneck
    Cook Islands - Rarotonga
    April 7, 2015, 2:59 pm

    kia orana,
    the cook islands are trying the same, we are not quite there yet but the impact of plastic in our little nation is immense.
    we also use the plastic wrappers to create recycled bags and wallets.. it would be great if we could have some locals making reusable bags for the super markets… have a look at this page for the plastic wrappers http://www.thedivecentre-rarotonga.com/index.html?/general/environmental-awareness/#contentAnchor

  53. Alexander Mirey
    Guam, Micronesia
    April 7, 2015, 6:41 am

    Many thanks to the author for sharing this story!

  54. Sapuro J. Rayphand
    Saipan, MP 96950
    April 7, 2015, 2:16 am

    I have had the greatest respect for Yapese people and their practical wisdom and know-hows.