Vanuatu bans single-use plastic bags but concerns exist for local handicraft sector
PACIFIC BEAT / By Catherine Graue
Vanuatu's ban on single-use plastic bags has come into effect today but there are concerns an influx of much cheaper imports from Asia may hit the local handicraft sector.
Vanuatu's Government said the ban, which also includes polystyrene takeaway containers and straws, was the furthest any country had gone in the Pacific in its approach to plastics.
But handicraft development officer Ian Baniuri said while the changes presented opportunities, there were also challenges.
"It will not be easy way to go about competing with the imported products … the Chinese market, it's much cheaper and [people in] Vanuatu tend to go with that," he said.
Nicola Barnes, a businesswoman living in Port Vila who's been working with the Vanuatu Handicraft Business Development program, said the amount of time that went into locally made products meant they could not compete with imports.
"Our locally made baskets are non-industrialised, they are literally women sitting on the floor, who have gone outside and collected pandanus and dried it, and in some cases treated it or dyed it, cut it by hand and weaved it," she said.
"So they are never going to be super cheap and they're not going to compete on price, for example, with a cotton bag that's mass produced from China."
But the Vanuatu Government is hoping locally made products will replace the banned plastics in the long term.
"As much as possible [we want people] looking for local alternatives, for example the very nice pandanus baskets they make in Vanuatu as a shopping basket," Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu said.
Environmental groups said there was a great opportunity for local women, like the mamas who tend to be the ones making biodegradable traditional-style baskets.
"If we are stopping use of imported plastic bags for environmental reasons it should have a knock-on effect that we can support a local industry as well," Vanuatu Environmental Science Society chief executive officer Christina Shaw said.
"Hopefully we'll see more people supporting local mamas that are making the baskets."
Ms Barnes said programs to develop the handicraft sector were working.
"We are tracking economic returns to the communities and definitely seeing once the women understand that their craft is not just a hobby, it can be a revenue generating product," she said.
But Mr Baniuri said there were multiple challenges to overcome.
"The issue of plastic bags has been here for quite some time now, the mentality of people buying locally-made baskets instead of plastic is slowly changing," he said.
Mr Baniuri said the location of producers was also creating issues.
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"You have the producers in rural areas, trying to get them to a supply chain … [that] needs to be strengthened," he said.
A new handicraft market in Port Vila was already going some way in helping to get more products to the larger populations.
But Ms Barnes said local producers also needed to be prepared to adapt their designs.
"All of a sudden [we] have this influx of choice, which is wonderful, so there are more appropriate shopping baskets available on the market which there weren't before," she said.