Hewett Paerau is busy sorting out rubbish from randomly selected garbage bags from around Rarotonga as part of a biennial waste management audit.
The waste facility building up in Tokerau valley, Arorangi, where Paerau and his colleagues donned in their protective gear are working tirelessly, stinks. It’s almost unbearable.
For them, it’s just another day at the office.
Paerau works five days a week. His day at the Rarotonga tip starts at 8am and he knocks off at 4pm.
“It’s just a job, like any other job I guess,” Paerau says with a smile while taking a breather from the tedious chore he has been doing all Thursday morning.
“Yes, people do judge me sometimes but I just don’t care. The important thing is I get paid better than most of them so it doesn’t matter really.”
Paerau, 24, joined the waste facility straight after finishing school seven years.
“This was the job that was given to me and I took it. Initially it was hard but as time went by, I got used to it and things became easy.”
High staff turnover at the dump is one of the major challenges faced by Infrastructure Cook Islands.
When Diane Charlie-Puna took over the Infrastructure Secretary role in 2018, one of her major focus was improving the working conditions of staff at the waste facility.
“It’s very hard to get people to work up there. We have had, over the years, older people like retirees in their late 60s and 70s, but then they started to take retirement so we tried to attract some young ones. But it’s not a very popular working place.
“I’m not looking for labourers actually, I’m looking for people that will look for options like a waste coordinator. People that can take strategically when it comes to waste.”
Just over a week ago, they recruited a teenager, and they hope he will stay longer than the other young men.
Charlie-Puna says they also started improving their wages and give additional allowances in order to make the job attractive.
“There is a ‘dirty allowance’ for each staff at work, which is $20 on top of their pay per day. They qualify for this allowance if they are handling or sorting out rubbish which is not every-day work. Somedays they just do yard cleaning.”
Apart from the allowance and protective gears, Infrastructure is implementing some new morale-boosting initiatives around their use of the glass crusher. It also helps to reduce waste at an over-full landfill.
According to a waste management report released in 2015, the Waste Facility landfill receives 916 tonnes of glass per year – about half of the total waste that goes to the rubbish dump annually.
In November last year, the Japanese government donated an industrial glass crusher worth $178,391 to help Infrastructure turn glass waste into something useful.
The crusher turns glass bottles and other glasses to fine sand in a matter of seconds. That can be used for concrete building and other construction purposes.
Takave Manea, the facility operations manager, says they receive about 30 one-cubic-metre containers full of glasses per week.
About two of the containers crush down to fill one cubic metre bag of fine glass sand. Infrastructure is selling them for $80 per bag.
The work is tedious and a bit risky. Staff operating the crusher have undergone training and are required to wear safety gears.
But Hewett Paerau says the crusher has made his job easier.
“It’s something new for us and easy to operate. Surely it has made our job easier in managing waste here at the facility.”
Diane Charlie-Puna says they are selling fine glass sand at $80 per bag so they can recover operations costs. There are about 30 bags of glass sand now available at the waste facility.
“You can use it as sand substitute to mix in your concrete work. It’s perfect for the construction business.
“We haven’t had much interest from the general public because we haven’t promoted it enough because we didn’t want to promote something we couldn’t supply. Now we have plenty stocked up and ready to go.”
Charlie-Puna says they also compact aluminium and tins into bales and send them to Cook Islands General Transport as part of a memorandum of understanding they have signed with the company. The company exports them overseas.
There are now plans to shred solid plastic waste such as plastic bottles so they can be used for fixing roads.
“We are always looking into ways of turning rubbish into something useful like the crushed glass sand. There are discussions going on regarding plastic bottles which we can shred and melt it down to be used in road works.
“However, it depends on the supply and getting the recipe right, still work in progress and something we looking in the future.”
The 2015 waste report was commissioned to gauge whether Rarotonga needs an incinerator as a solution for its growing rubbish problem.
Instead the report recommended improving the behaviour of the people and educating them about waste management.
Diane Charlie-Puna says it also includes things like sorting out their household rubbish so it’s easier for their staff to manage waste at the landfill.
The biennial waste management audit which is underway will give an idea if there has been any improvement in people’s behaviour in this area.
“The last one was done in 2016 but this audit is for the whole Pacific Islands. Cook Islands is first then it will go to Samoa, Tonga. The purpose of this project is to look at a Pacific Islands Waste Management System.”
The audit headed by Tekao Herrmann, the local consultant for New Zealand-based environmental consultant Tonkin+Taylor, ran for a week.
Twenty bags of rubbish were randomly collected from the roadside in Rarotonga. They were labelled, weighed and scattered before the waste is separated.
Once the data is entered, the consultant will interview those homes and business owners whose rubbish they audited.
Charlie-Puna says they wanted to know in comparison to 2015/16 whether there is change in behaviour of the types of rubbish being collected.
“I would say that I think yes. For our single use plastics ban, people just voluntarily started using alternatives so I think there will be less of the non-biodegradable stuff.”
Schools are also invited to visit the landfill and the Waste Facility so the young ones know the importance of managing waste and separating them for their weekly garbage collection.
“Speaking from own experience, my eight-year-old daughter was part of a school trip up there. When she came home, she wanted to rinse the cans and milk cartons, something that she might have come across during the visit, and wanted to practice at home. It forced her elder sisters to follow through.
“I think the message to the public is we have to do our little bits at home like separating our rubbish so it makes the job of the people managing landfill easier.”
Hewett Paerau says when the T&M Heather truck drives up the valley with garbage, they hope they don’t have to do the “dirty job” of separating the waste.
“Please sort out your rubbish so it’s easier for us boys here at the landfill.”
Papa Kaa Kavakura, who has been working at the landfill for the past 12 years, shares similar sentiment.
“I’m not happy when people mix up all their rubbish and expect someone else to do their job,” he said.
“It’s just a simple job, separate your rubbish. While I enjoy what I do, it’s not an easy job and an average person can’t do it. But people can make my job easier by simply separating their waste.”