During eXXpedition’s inaugural Virtual Voyage in 2021, the multidisciplinary crew took part in a virtual “Talanoa,” with local representatives from the Kingdom of Tonga to talk about the local challenges of the global plastics issue. OHAI Incorporated, The Commonwealth Secretariat and No Pelesitiki led a thought provoking discussion, opening doors for opportunities to explore ways to work on addressing plastic pollution in the region.


Tonga is a Polynesian kingdom of around 170 islands in the south-western Pacific, 36 of which are inhabited. It sits adjacent to Fiji, Wallis and Futuna, Samoa, Niue, Kermadec, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and is scattered over 700,000 square kilometres. The archipelago is the southernmost in central Polynesia – in Polynesian, Tonga, comes from fakatonga which means “southwards”.

Natural History

Tonga is considered by many to be the “Crown Jewel of the South Pacific”. It has a tropical rainforest climate, which is home to 73 bird species. The coral reefs have been impacted greatly by many anthropogenic and natural threats including tropical cyclones, sea level fluctuations, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks and bleaching events. The reefs have also been subject to overexploitation and destructive fishing practices.

“The ocean for us is life. Every person relies on it for their livelihood.”

The Plastics Issue

Like many island nations, Tonga has been affected by plastic pollution, with waste management a major concern. The main sources of plastic waste in Tonga are littering and illegal dumping, especially throughout coastal areas. In 2020, Tonga declared it wanted to phase out single use plastic items such as shopping bags, cutlery, straws and more. At present, the Waste Management & Pollution Control Division within Tonga’s Department of Environment are working to better enforce the Waste Management Act, which restricts dumping and burning of plastics. The government is also supporting clean-ups and raising awareness.

Local representative Uili Lousi, President OHAI Incorporated, led a discussion with the eXXpedition crew exploring how plastic use and management has evolved in Tonga over the last decade. Read the highlights below:

Challenges Discussed

  • Illegal dumping. 
  • Tonga relies heavily on imported goods, which creates a one-way flow of plastic into the country. 
  • There is a lack of recycling infrastructure. Although the country is good at collecting plastics, it doesn’t have the facilities to turn plastic waste into products that can be of use to its communities. Only 18% of households recycle items such as cans and bottles. 
  • Non-indigenous waste pollutes the islands.
  • Everybody involved in the movement to tackle plastic pollution is working on a voluntary basis.

“Everyone is doing a really good job at collecting the plastics, but we don’t have the infrastructure to recycle them.”

Solutions Discussed

  • Community education and engagement. No Pelesitiki is a campaign to reduce and eliminate single use plastic products from Tonga by raising awareness, bringing people together, strengthening the voice of the community, lobbying the government to tackle plastic pollution, and promoting local and traditional replacements. Initiatives have included collecting and cleaning plastic bags which are then made into kneeling pads and cushions using a sewing machine for use in churches, and replacing single use plastic bags with traditional weaved baskets which are more durable.
  • Build houses from plastic bottles. Ordinary citizens struggle to pay for housing in Tonga. Using plastic bottles in construction is a more affordable option for many people in the community, especially those that are victims of other social issues.
  • Use local materials instead of plastic. e.g. papaya leaf stems are hollow and can be used as straws. They are a good option for resorts.
  • Invest in recycling infrastructure. A plastic compounder will allow Tonga to break down plastics and make them into new items such as bricks, chairs, tables, windows and other useful products. The machine will help Tonga drive action on plastic pollution because communities will be able to witness first hand the benefits of collecting and recycling plastic items. At the moment, they don’t understand why they should engage with activities such as beach cleans because there is no end product that benefits their day-to-day lives. Tonga is seeking support from countries who have this infrastructure already in place to help guide them.
  • Review natural resource and environment related legislation including bans on single use plastic.
  • Increase the import tax on plastics and dedicate income to finance the Waste to Energy Scheme. 
  • Make sure the voice of Tonga is heard internationally.

“I believe if we work together we will achieve a lot.”

Find out more about Virtual Voyage: Tonga here. 

Since the Virtual Voyage in 2021, Tonga has faced a serious natural disaster. The 2022 volcanic eruption and tsunami wreaked havoc on the island nation, creating a number of challenges to the efforts to tackle plastic pollution that were underway. We’re in dialogue with people on the ground who are trying to put processes into place to deal with the huge amount of single use plastics the relief effort has resulted in from drinking water bottles to packaging supplies as well as the litter caused from the destruction.

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Thank you to 11th Hour Racing who are supporting this work.