TUBUAI – For the past 30 years, local residents from the Austral Islands have been dumping their garbage just a few kilometers from the Tubuai airport, in the swamps.

"When the hole starts to overflow, we pack it with machines, we fill the hole and dig a new one," explains Therese, who owns a bed and breakfast not far from the swamp. In the past, high grass would grow there, but no more. "We need to shut down the site as soon as possible" says Fernand Tahiata, the mayor. "We know that the dump creates major pollution."

In 2011, engineering design office Capse – which was in charge of evaluating the situation – came to the conclusion that there was "a major risk for the natural and human environment." The percentage of aluminum, manganese and hydrocarbons present in the water tables exceed the safety standard. Capse recommended a further analysis of the concentration of "polluting elements in the vegetables consumed by the population" and advocated in the meanwhile, “to limit or even stop consumption." 

But nothing has been done. About ten families live a few meters away from the garbage dump. "We have heard rumors about pollution. But we don't know the risks,"says a woman who lives next to the site.

A member of the green party Heiura Les Verts, local Minister of the Environment Jacky Bryant confirms that no new study has been carried out but claims that the rural development council has issued a recommendation for locals not to grow vegetables near the dump. "Further analysis would only confirm what we already know," he says.

Overflowing into the lagoon 

In the French Polynesian islands, waste management is a nightmare. "Tubuai is not a unique case. We face similar situations on each of our islands," confirms the Minister of the Environment. 

Over the past 30 years, the way of life has greatly changed – and litter has been piling up. The development of the archipelago – which started when the French established their nuclear experiment base there in 1963 – brought manufactured goods that never had been sold on the islands before. But nobody worried about what would become of these goods once people were done with them.

The European Union directive limiting waste-burial does not apply on this French territory, which enjoys a large autonomy. Unauthorized dumping sites have sprouted all over the islands.

The unauthorized waste dump on Maupiti Island overflows onto the lagoon. In Bora Bora, smoke rising from the dump regularly affects the visibility of airplane pilots. People living in Tahiti – the most populated island of the archipelago – now produce 60,000 tons of non-recyclable waste per year, according to a study by French Environment and Energy Management Agency Ademe. That amount is comparable to mainland France. 

In the Austral Islands, every inhabitant produces 345 grams of waste per day – two thirds less than in Tahiti. But it’s even more complicated to deal with on these tiny islands.

Tentative recycling 

In order to reduce waste production, the Ministry of the Environment has launched a three-point plan: a tax to encourage importers to bring in products with light packaging; sanctions to those who do not recycle their waste and trials with small-capacity incinerators.

Recycling programs have been around for ten years but they fail to bring significant results. Even in Punaauia, the town nicknamed “the Golden Tortoise” by the Polynesian environment society for its efficient recycling program, the recyclable waste collected only accounts for 50% of what could be potentially recycled. 

So far authorities have not found an ideal solution to curb the existing dumpsites. Only Tahiti and Bora Bora are equipped with proper waste-burial sites that stock litter in a way that prevents pollution. However in Nuku Hiva and Rapa, the waste-burial infrastructures –completed in 2008 – are not working because of disagreements on their financing.

The construction of a site in Tubuai, with a planned capacity that could store 40 years of waste, should begin in 2013. “At the current pace, it will be full in 15 years time,” believes Damas Bataillaird, a waste technician in Tubuai.

Unless there is a public awareness on the subject, Polynesia might no longer be able to cope with its waste. A budget of more than 21 million euros was allocated as part of a deal between France and its overseas territory to fund waste collection programs. Yet, another sign of a lack of political willingness is that only a small part of this money has been used, while the contract is due to expire in 2013.