Waste disposal is a growing environmental problem, and it is good to see the Vanuatu government taking it seriously.
It is also good to see that plenty of consultation is being done.
Plastic bans should not be implemented purely on the advice of wealthy shoppers in Port Vila with little understanding of how plastics are actually used in rural areas.
First, they tried to take away our plastic bags — the ones they call single-use, but which many of us value and reuse.
We keep them inside our beautiful island baskets, where they protect our phones and other valuables from getting wet in the rain when we have to walk a long way from the garden or the store.
For protecting goods from water and damage, no material is quite as practical as a lightweight polythene bag.
The environmental cost of throwing away and replacing a damaged phone is worse than the environmental cost of throwing away a hundred plastic bags.
Lightweight polythene also burns much more cleanly than the materials from which reuseable containers are made, when it does wear out and the time comes to chuck it on the fire.
Now they want to ban diapers.
This is a strange thing to ban, because it is one of the few products that most people already dispose of responsibly.
People may be happy to see Twisties packets blown around with the dead leaves, but nobody leaves little parcels of human poo scattered around their villages.
So please ban the Twisties packets before banning the diapers. (Twisties are bad for our children anyway, whereas having a dry bottom is good for them.)
Campaigners are right to point out that disposable diapers are wasteful and expensive, and for this reason the use of reuseable napkins in rural Vanuatu is already very high.
But the anti-plastic folks should pause, while they wait for their high-quality reuseables to come out of the automatic washing machine, and ask themselves why poor families value disposable diapers so highly that they are willing to spend precious money on them, at least on special occasions? Perhaps it is because the locally-available reuseable napkins are leaky and poor in quality, even when doubled up? Or because it is hard work to wash them hygienically when all you have is a scrub and a couple of buckets of water fetched from a faraway tap? The Mammas Laef initiative to produce eco-friendly nappies sounds great, but we should wait until these are actually available and affordable in every village store round the country before taking away the alternatives.
However much we care for the planet, most people qualified in economics and environmental issues would advise against simply banning a wasteful product.
Bans stop people using a product thoughtlessly, but they also hurt those who might badly need it (perhaps for reasons that others do not appreciate).
Better instead to tax the dirty product and spend the money helping people, such as the mothers you reported on, with eco-friendly alternatives.
Instead of pre-judging the choices of others whose lives might be different from your own, push them in the right direction, but continue to allow them to buy a product, and pay for the environmental cost, if they feel that in their personal circumstances it is worthwhile.
In any case, Vanuatu’s contribution to global pollution (in normal times) comes overwhelmingly from its tourist industry, so the major impact of the diaper ban will be an indirect one.
It will depend on tourists with young children, who might no longer choose to come to Vanuatu because they fear that trying to deal with reuseable napkins will take the fun out of their holidays. (I personally am OK with our infant son wearing leaky napkins at home and around the village, but would hate the idea of a trip to Vila without good diapers.)
If the people who are put off travelling to Vanuatu take longer flights to more distant destinations instead, the extra pollution from those flights could easily outweigh the environmental harm from burning or burying years’ worth of soiled diapers.
And tens of thousands of parents will have endured leaks and extra scrubbing for nothing.
Mr Andrew Gray
MSc Ecological Economics
Science Teacher, Ranwadi College