Vava’u, Tonga

In December 2017 I traveled with my parents and two youngest children to Vava’u. Vava’u is a group of islands in The Kingdom of Tonga. It is also where my Tongan family descend from on my mothers side. A family reunion was the main reason for going, and although the reunion was cancelled a month out we still decided to go for a holiday.

Marcy and I at sunset on the wharf

I did my best to pack for a zero waste holiday or as close to zero waste as possible for myself and the kids. Cloth nappies, reusable coffee cups, stainless steel drink bottles, reusable produce bags and shopping bags, activity bags, containers and a cutlery kit was all packed. Unfortunately both of the kids got sick, one after the other, nothing too bad but enough to keep me from being in control of some things that led to waste. But I didn’t fret over it as the kids health was most important.

Cloth nappies drying on the deck

In the breaks I did get from the kids getting sick what I did see was an amazing lush green landscape growing fruits and staple crops at every turn surrounded by emerald green water. We also visited a family cemetery and houses and land where relatives used to live. I imagined what the life was like back then and how different it is now on the island. The view at the top of Mt Talau was breathtaking, swimming at a seaside village and watching Marcy in her element with the village kids was also a highlight and experiencing a Sunday church service was good for the soul.

Sanft, Guttenbeil and Shumarkel cemetery.

Planning my zero waste trip I came across Vava’u Protection Association VEPA. I was interested to hear what they got up to so I visited the centre and had a chat to Karen Stone – an educator at VEPA. I learnt that recycling is available but not economically viable (sent to China), especially plastic recycling. Disposable nappies are subsidised by the government to encourage women to return to the workforce (perhaps giving women one less washing load?), the outcome being disposable nappies make up a large percentage of landfill or unfortunately, end up being dumped in other areas. (Cultural beliefs forego disposable nappies being incinerated- which is a viable option according to Karen). Another effect of disposable nappies is that the water quality has been affected, which could account for bottled water sold and discarded everywhere and even locals stocking up. However it was great to see the locals harvesting and using rainwater which made me think I need to get a rainwater tank set up at home ASAP!

VEPA office near the wharf in Neiafu

VEPA do an array of work and one of their projects was working with retailers at the local marketi to forego plastic bags. I also learnt that plastic bags were taxed for a time but it didn’t work out so plastic bags are now back 😦 however food waste is not high on the waste scale which was encouraging to hear 🙂 Recycling bins are scattered all over the island and I noticed that in small villages they looked good – uncontaminated and used well compared to the ones in the main town.

A small recycling station that I found near where I was staying. Here I dropped off some cans and bottles.

I noticed a lot of litter around, plastic and glass bottles, food packets, plastic bags, and others who I traveled with and met up with noticed it too, so it wasn’t me with my waste cap on! It was a little depressing to be honest and it made me sad for the island and the people living there and also made me think about my ancestors who worked and lived on the land and what they would think. Vava’u is a small place but the waste issues seemed so big. It made me think of all the initiatives and services that are available in NZ and how grateful I am for them but also it made me think that there are so many meaning we consume and make a lot of waste!

Local marketi, VEPA are working with retailers to forego plastic bags.

Chatting to some family who joined us in Vava’u and who had been to Vava’u 10 years previous, they talked about how litter wasn’t what it is now and that burning waste (mainly stuff that was swept up around their property, I would imagine dried leaves and garden waste) was common but now not common at all, because according to a local – “you can’t burn plastic” which seemed to be the most common waste. (Here is a video clip made in the Tongan language that talks about the risks and harm that burning plastic has on the environment).

Plastic bag floating in the sea 😦

Doing a bit of research before and after the trip I came across this report. Although it centres on Tongatapu it would appear the challenges are the same on other islands including Vava’u. The report mentions how abandoned cars are a growing waste problem, this I certainly noticed, especially when our driver pointed out his home above a car wreck site and it looked as though the cars had been there for many many years with the rusty cars blending into clay coloured land that had been hollowed out for the site. I do hope to visit Tonga again in the future, I hope that things are better environmentally. At the moment I feel there is a long way to go.

A kava crop near Mt Talau. At $150 a kilo for kava powder this is a precious crop!

The bigger picture – we stopped by Queen brand vanilla farm and talking to the farmer he told us that the last two seasons of vanilla had failed. Not just in Tonga but globally, he put the failure down to “two words – climate change”. So expect to be paying $$$$$ for vanilla if you are not already. Hearing about failing crops really freaks me out, I would hate to see my kids or grandchildren go hungry.

Veimumuni Caves

Perhaps it is because I have’t traveled overseas to a developing country for some time, the effect of our disposable life seemed so obvious and catastrophic when there is limited to no infrastructure to deal with the issues associated.  I am still reflecting on this trip and I am not sure where my experiences will take me. For now goodbye Vava’u, I’ll be back some day.


View from the top of Mt Talau

5 thoughts on “Vava’u, Tonga”

  1. The problem of waste is huge for island dwellers isn’t it. I saw a great documentary about rubbish in the islands – I think it might have been by TeRadar. They talked about how Islanders use plastic as a fire starter, and the damage it is doing to the people. Why are humans so slow to stop the environmental damage and introduce better ways? They should be banning disposable nappies, not promoting them!


    1. Hi Anne, thanks for reading:) I’ll have to watch that documentary, love TeRadar! I am not sure of the logic behind subsidizing disposable nappies, I couldn’t find any reports on it. There is some education on the effects of burning plastic that I came across, I think a lot needs to be done by the govt. Developing countries can really show the effects of plastic and single use culture, however some developed countries consume just as much but have more resources to deal with for the good or bad. Here is a interesting (and depressing) report on where countries sit on the waste scale:


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