Taking big steps towards plastic free

Hawaiʻi-born musician Jack Johnson and his wife Kim know that single-use plastics are a major source of pollution, especially in our oceans. The IUCN Congress will be part of the solution, not the problem. 


Kōkua Hawaiʻi founder Jack Johnson sorting waste Photo: Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation

Globally, between 5.3 million and 14 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year.

In Hawai‘i, a large-scale aerial surveillance project conducted in 2015 shows plastics account for nearly half of shoreline marine debris across the state. These are mostly everyday single-use plastics such as disposable plates and cutlery.

With its goal of making the IUCN Congress a ‘zero-waste’ event, IUCN will provide alternatives to these items whenever possible. At the Hawaiʻi Convention Center (HCC), IUCN Congress participants will use sustainable and compostable food and beverage service ware and containers. Hawai‘i already prohibits the use of plastic non-compostable carrier bags, and IUCN is working with a local organisation to pioneer a new food composting process.

“It’s exciting,” says Natalie McKinney, Executive Director of the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation, a Hawaiʻi-based non-profit organisation helping IUCN with the zero-waste effort. “HCC already does amazing work around waste management and recycling. So when an organisation like HCC partners with an organisation like IUCN, and they identify an opportunity to streamline their individual strengths to work in tandem towards larger positive solutions, something big unfolds.”

Efforts begin at the waste bins throughout the IUCN Congress venue. In addition to glass, aluminium and paper recycling stations, the Hawai‘i Convention Center will provide compost bins for collecting food scraps and compostable waste that will be sent to local farms for composting.

“Many delegates come from countries that already have effective waste management programmes,” says McKinney. “They’ll arrive at the stations trained to sort trash. So delegates from countries where detailed recycling programmes aren’t yet a priority have an opportunity to see what is possible. They can then take the idea back home. That’s education through model behaviour. That’s what effects change.”

Reducing the use of plastic water bottles is key to the zero-waste effort. IUCN encourages all delegates to bring their own refillable water bottles, and there will be numerous water bottle filler units and water stations. Beverages sold on-site at the IUCN Congress will be in recyclable glass or aluminium containers.

“But a large event like the IUCN Congress comes with challenges,” says McKinney. “Using certified compostables for its tableware instead of plastics, that raises costs. Plus, Hawai‘i doesn’t have a commercial composting system to properly process the waste, so we had to work on that. We are thrilled that the IUCN Congress intends to pilot a system in which all compostable waste, including tableware, will go to local farms for composting.”

Despite the challenges, IUCN expects the benefits of reducing plastic waste and turning food waste into useable compost will outweigh the barriers and have a lasting positive impact in Hawaiʻi.

IUCN’s plastic-free Congress initiative is in line with the vision of Hawai‘i-born musician Jack Johnson and his wife Kim, who co-founded the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation which has been supporting environmental education in Hawaiʻi schools and communities since 2003. Among the foundation’s programmes is Plastic Free Hawai‘i, which educates school students and community members about the benefits of reducing single-use plastic, focussing on behavioural change.

The IUCN Congress will feature numerous events focussed on marine, plastic and other pollution, including a high-level dialogue on oceans.

Go to top