Modern lifestyles and tourism mean more trash, but recycling isn't enough: old ways of treating land and sea must also be discarded

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Friday is party night in rarotonga. In the early evening, groups of men gather on palm-fringed beaches, clutching 24-can "trays" of beer and bottles of rum. Many hours later, the sun rises on sore heads, smoldering fires, and piles of garbage. The trucks that cart away household recyclables each Saturday morning aren't responsible for the overflowing refuse bins near the littered beaches; nor are the school-age Environmental Rangers always rostered to work weekends clearing up after their elders. Raro boys like a drink and a party, but, as a stroll along the shore or the back roads proves, they haven't learned to do the right thing with their trash. "I live near the beach," says Jessie Sword, whose family runs a commercial rubbish collection service. "It pains me to see so much rubbish flowing down the streams and getting washed up on my front lawn."

Solid waste-cans, glass, paper, plastic -is a serious concern on Rarotonga, an island of 9,000 people that is home to 3 out of 5 Cook Islanders. Relative affluence and a surge of tourists-from 50,000 a year in the 1990s to 73,000 last year-have brought a flood of imported goods whose discarded packaging winds up in streams, in schoolyards and on beaches. Environment officials say that at this stage, pollution issues are "concerns rather than problems." But while there's no immediate danger to the environment, says Bruce Gray, of the Rarotonga Environmental Awareness Programme (reap), "there are problems that have to be addressed right now: ocean water and drinking water are not as clean as they were 10 years ago."

Rarotonga's pollution doesn't yet rival that of Kiribati, Tuvalu or the Solomon Islands. But on an island of 67 sq. km, there are few places to hide garbage. Hundreds of junked vehicles are scattered along back roads; a mountain of car batteries sits in the yard of the Ministry of Works depot. "People think that because they own the land they can do what they want on it," says Sword. "They have holes in the ground at the back of their house where rubbish is dumped and burned. There is a regulation about this, but the environment service is not enforcing it."

Rarotonga's spectacular landscape, with wild mountain streams tumbling from jagged central peaks into lush valleys, means toxins and sewage easily find their way into the island's encircling lagoon, harming coral, fish, and potentially people. From time to time, Rarotongans boycott certain beaches, saying they're unsafe for swimming. The water supply is also questionable: residents are advised to boil all drinking water for at least 10 minutes.

Some fear that if visitors start falling ill, the cash cow of tourism could also sicken; if an epidemic struck, medical facilities would be overwhelmed. Yet public education campaigns about the effects of littering and dumping have had mixed results, and the system of litter wardens-who issue on-the-spot fines of $NZ20, keeping half for themselves-is considered a joke. "Most people," says Mathilda Miria-Tarea, who oversees the government's waste management project, "don't realize where waste ends up."

On an elevated block with prime views of the ocean shore, the Nikao landfill is overflowing with refuse. The garbage compactor is broken, and decay and flies are in the air; the ground is scorched by fires lit to kill germs and maggots. "I wouldn't want to live down there," says reap's Gray, pointing to the village 100 m below. "After heavy rain, there's always the possibility of a mud slide." Residents are starting to voice their concerns. During celebrations to mark the anniversary of the constitution this month, a dance troupe from Nikao village won first prize for a performance with an angry environmental theme: "We won't take it anymore."

On the outer islands, waste-disposal problems are eased by isolation and small populations. But crude infrastructure doesn't help. Aitutaki (pop. 2,300) has no sewage treatment facility or waste dump, and mosquitoes are a growing concern. "We have a big problem with plastic bottles," says Aitutaki mayor Tai Herman. "But we have managed to control the importation of glass bottles, and aluminum cans are being recycled. We will always have a problem with waste. Still, we can try and improve it. No place in the world has the best of everything."

According to the Asian Development Bank, the Cooks' overloaded waste management system is damaging the environment and threatening the health of residents. Last month, after eight years of deliberations and delays, the ADB approved a $2.2 million loan for new landfills and sewage lagoons on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. The new facilities are yet to be designed, but environmental and community groups are unhappy about the preferred location-in an old quarry near two major streams. "If they continue to dynamite the rock," says reap's Gray, "it could break the lining of the landfill and lead to seepage." Locating septic ponds on the same site would increase the risk of environmental disaster, Gray adds: "Those streams run straight down to the best tourist beaches."

At most, the new facilities, due to be completed in Aug. 2003, will have a life span of 20 years. "Land is limited, and there are alternatives to landfill," says waste management chief Miria-Tarea, listing innovative organic approaches that could turn trash into fertilizer. "Let's explore them."

While there's profit in crushing cans and shipping the metal to New Zealand, says Sword, there's little money for her rubbish-collection company in recycling the tons of glass and plastic containers imported into the Cook Islands each year. Rarotonga's recycling center is still a few months short of completion; as it awaits crushing and shredding equipment, the site resembles an unofficial new landfill.

In the Cook Islands, growth tends to be haphazard. Lax zoning rules mean people are free to build as they wish on their own land-and the way they dispose of rubbish and sewage is poorly monitored. "We are a small atoll, and we have to be careful how we develop our tourism because of waste and water limitations," says Aitutaki's Herman. But there is no master plan for development on Rarotonga, and no one is quite sure what limits to place on tourist numbers and accommodation. Environment-protection laws-especially on the dumping of cars and household trash-are unevenly enforced. "People have to start paying if they [flout] regulations," says Sword. "The message must be driven home about how vulnerable we are."

That lesson has not been lost on 15-year-old Ngatokotoru Rouru, an Environmental Ranger from Mitiaro island. He often volunteers to spend his Saturdays collecting discarded cans, bottles and paper from picnic areas and beaches. "I want to clean my island," he says, "so it can be beautiful at all times." The Cooks can still be redeemed. But if the warnings go unheeded-as they have elsewhere in the Pacific-this string of island pearls could be sullied forever.