When your friend asks, “Do you want to come hang out at the market with me tomorrow?” You think “Awesome!” When they clarify that is starts at 4:30am, you start to imagine all sorts of excuses … is feigning death too drastic? But Samoa is a small place, and Apia is even smaller, so you be the good friend and you go.
Bleary eyed, half asleep, you wander into the darkness that is the Sunday Farmer’s market located on the Savalalo road. A long row of vendors selling koko alaisa, baked goods, umu, and every other treat you’d need for to’ona'i snakes into the parking lot. The smells of caramelised sugar, smoky palusami, and warm Koko Samoa help your eyes to widen and your belly to grumble.
As the sun rises, you realise that you are in the best place in the world! People you haven’t seen for ages stop by, relatives you didn’t know were in the country say hello and every vendor has a different way of grabbing your attention - whether it’s the sassy Fafa with her witty calls as she waves a cabbage leaf at you, or the young guys blaring dance music while selling taro, or us, with our stall full of strange fruits and vegetables, jams and chutneys, and freshly cut herbs all presented like a grand still-life painting.
“Us” is a group of women growers and farmers who banded together because we had the same interests and challenges, but soon realized that we also needed a support network to seek advice and help. From that desire to nurture and share, was born SWAG (Samoa Women’s Association of Growers). Yeah, we thought the name was cool too 😊 and in a very short time, we discovered we all had one burning passion, to help make this planet a healthier, cleaner, and safer place to be…not just for our farms, but for our families.
But how do you do that? The answers seemed overwhelming and complicated. We saw how every vendor at the market used plastic bags, hundreds being used every Sunday, and we decided that was where we would start.
Over 400 tons of non-biodegradable plastic bags are imported to Samoa every year, that end up either in landfills, our back yards, or in our ocean. The country's use of plastic increased by more than 20% between 2011 and last year, according to research by MNRE. If those numbers aren’t scary enough, 70% cent of all the litter in the country's waterways and ocean are plastic!
You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world and is located between Hawaii and California? It covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres. While it is a huge and dramatic example of how plastic pollution is affecting our ocean, you may not know about the Plastic debris at the micro-, and potentially also the nano-scale, which are also widespread in the environment.
Microplastics have accumulated in oceans and sediments worldwide in recent years, with maximum concentrations reaching 100,000 particles m3 (that is crazy teeny in non-science nerd terms). Due to their small size, microplastics are being ingested by fish, birds, and a whole host of ocean wildlife. While most plastic has been found in the guts of fish, and would therefore be removed before eating, some studies have warned that microplastics, particularly at the nanoscale, could transfer from the guts to the meat. There is no evidence of harm to humans from those quantities, but contamination is widespread, and we need to learn more before we can assume all is safe.
Reading stats like the ones above can cause one to feel overwhelmed, but we couldn’t let that get in the way of creating a solution. So, we decided to start small in hopes of influencing our neighbours. Slowly we reduced and then finally stopped the use of all plastic bags at our stall. When customers needed to something to carry off their purchases, we gave away free akos, handwoven baskets made from the leaf of the coconut tree. They are the most common way every farmer carries items from one place to the next. Simple, light, and totally biodegradable! What more could you ask for?
My father Nusi is a koko farmer, and he is the one who taught me how to weave them. We had to adjust the size and style to be smaller and more attractive “Imagine an ako that you can carry your lip gloss in rather than 20 taros.” I said to my dad as we problem solved. After several tries, we found the right style and the right size. And that was where the #SWAGbag was born.
Now we encourage our customers to refuse, reuse, reduce, and recycle. We laugh as we hand them their “sassy” the little akos, but all the while reminding them that plastic bags are not good for our planet or our country. Samoans and Pacific Islanders were innovative enough to create these woven pieces, probably traversing the once pristine Pacific with their belongings and food packed in them. We just want to celebrate our cultural tradition as we seek to find answers to the pollution problems that we all face.
Thankfully we are not alone in this search, the Government of Samoa has just announced that it will ban all single-use plastics starting in 2019. This includes plastic bags and straws, and will eventually involve styrofoam containers and cups. The Government of Vanuatu has also made the same commitment earlier in the year, and the hope is that soon all Pacific island nations will follow suit. But even as govenrments institute new laws and policies, we all need to do our part to find alternatives to everyday plastics. We need to be willing to change our attitudes and our habits. And we need to do it now.
If you’re in Apia and feeling hungry on a Sunday morning, come to our stall and hang out with us! We’ll share some jokes, give you a sample of something tasty, and encourage you to use akos instead of plastic bags 😊 In other words, we’ll show you the same alofa that we have for our families and our planet!