Plastic bags make up 12 percent of waste in Honiara’s main landfill. (Photo: UNDP/Merinda Valley)

Baked food wrapped in banana leaves. Vegetables carted in cane baskets. Intricately woven string bags.

Natural materials used to be the standard in Solomon Islands.

Then plastic took the place of everything.

Now it’s everywhere in the capital of Honiara — roadsides, markets, drains, the sea. It’s inundating the city.

Plastic waste is littered, dumped, burned and largely ignored — maybe even slightly accepted. Plastic bags alone make up 12 percent of refuse in Honiara’s main landfill.

Waste generation in the city is estimated at 80 tonnes per day, and about 10 percent of that washes into the ocean.

As Honiara’s population of about 88,000 grows, the city’s waste will likely continue to stress infrastructure and the environment to new extremes.

Managing solid waste, and particularly plastic, is a pressing issue for local governments.

And there should be serious impetus in Honiara because poor management of plastic waste (and its production in the first place) has severe effects on small island developing states like Solomon Islands.

Rubbish piles up near a bridge in Honiara’s White River community. (Photo: UNDP/Merinda Valley)

So, what should we do?

There are common approaches and novel ideas to deal with waste — what works depends on who and where. In Solomon Islands, infrastructural improvements are needed. But individual mindsets must shift as well.

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiative funded by the Innovation Facility accepted the challenge of determining those w’s: what works where and with whom.

We want to help Honiara residents better manage their plastic waste and stop passing the buck (and buying the stuff). The issue is big, but individual responsibility is a big part of it.

The approach

The plastic waste management initiative in Solomon Islands will target personal actions and tease out motivations with behavioural insights.

By drawing on research from psychology, economics and neuroscience, behavioural insights help explain how people make decisions.

The public sector uses them to encourage better choices for individual and collective good. UNDP wants to use behavioural insights across the globe to develop improved policies that address development issues.

In Solomon Islands, we’re using a behavioural insights approach known as TESTS (Target, Explore, Solution, Trial and Scale) to tackle the plastic problem with the Honiara City Council and other government and private sector partners. The Behavioural Insights Team is providing technical guidance.

The initiative started in October 2018 by defining the behaviors we want to influence (Target). Research to better understand the problem and drivers of the target behaviours followed (Explore).

We used another framework to determine possible solutions. And based on information from a literature review, consultations and a workshop, five ideas in different thematic areas were developed.

Honiara produces 80 tonnes of waste per day, and 22.7 tonnes are unmanaged. (Photo: UNDP/Merinda Valley)

The (suggested) solution

Our behavioural insights experts and key stakeholders overwhelmingly put their hands up for the idea on education and youth.

In short, the idea tests waste management behaviours of students and parents. We’ll study the school context and fine-tune the target behaviours for the two groups. The schools will help us design a refined solution that incorporates behavioural science and the outcome of the explore stage (Solution).

All of that will culminate in a two-month test of the solution in about four Honiara schools (Trial).

We’ll test a ban on single-use plastics and what it takes for people to properly dispose of them (plus other components, specific incentives and all the related jargon).

If the test is successful, the results will be applied to the broader plastic waste management challenge (Scale).

This one’s for the planet

Through the trial, we want to gain information about our solution’s feasibility and efficacy. Ideally, that will inform future waste management interventions in Solomon Islands.

And it would be nice to add to the global repository of evidence that encourages people to refuse, reduce, reuse or recycle single-use plastics because this problem goes beyond the borders of Honiara.

One thing plastic can’t replace is our planet.

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