Tackling the Pacific's plastic problem

Lionel Taito-Matamua



Victoria University design student Lionel Taito-Matamua’s innovations have seen him recognised as having the potential to tackle the Pacific region’s growing waste

When visiting Samoa in 2010, Lionel Taito-Matamua saw first-hand a widespread lack of awareness around recycling.

But instead of shrugging his shoulders at the problem, the New Zealand-born Samoan developed a design solution as part of his Master’s research at Victoria University, one that could see new recycling ventures in Pacific schools, communities and businesses.


While studying Design Innovation at Victoria’s School of Design, Lionel discovered there is minimal financial return in recycling plastics. And without financial incentive or effective plastic recycling systems in place, plastics in the Pacific are instead clogging up landfills, being burnt or entering oceans, rivers and lakes.


“The amount of plastic is increasing. Tourists drink water from plastic bottles and many locals who traditionally ate food off banana leaves now use plastic or polystyrene disposable plates,” Lionel says.


“There is so much plastic and other recyclable waste in the Pacific, and local companies, industries and people don’t know how to dispose of it properly.


“Pollution not only affects natural wildlife and ecosystems, but can also affect the tourism sector. Finding a way to reduce the impact of this waste stream was a key aspect of my design thesis.”


Lionel dedicated his thesis to testing emerging technologies to find a solution. He found his answer in turning used plastic into a new resource.


He first ground the plastic waste into particles, which were then transformed into a filament used for 3D printing. With a 3D printer, the recycled plastic can be used to create everyday tools, artefacts, utensils, jewellery and even spare parts for things such as bicycles.


Some of the applications have a practical function, such as a plastic asi (a handgrip for a taro peeler), while others are more ornamental, and so provide local business opportunities through the notion of mea alofa (gifting) and tourism. For example, Lionel used the 3D printer to create a souvenir turtle head ornament, which simultaneously draws attention to the marine life harmed by the plastics polluting the sea.


Lionel has identified other designs that can be created for the environmental and economic benefit of the community and that align with their social and cultural context.


“It gives communities the opportunity to design and make objects specific to their needs and allows them to be more inventive about what plastic objects they buy, use and throw away.”


Even before he had graduated, Lionel’s design solution was gaining attention around New Zealand. In October, he was a triple finalist in the New Zealand Innovators Awards, and he was a 2016 semi-finalist in the Kiwibank Young New Zealander of the Year.


With financial help from Victoria University’s commercialisation office Viclink, Lionel has been able to establish a pilot programme called Creative Pathways with secondary schools around Wellington, where students are taught how to use 3D modelling software and 3D printers.


Viclink manager Emily Grinter says the programme gives students hands-on experience using the technologies and encourages them to think how they can be used to combat the plastic waste problem.


Lionel says his longer-term plan is to take the programme to Samoa to “give people a basic feel for design thinking and development as an empowering activity”.
In fact, he’s already working with Viclink to find the financial support to do so.


“To go more widely, I envision a constellation of localised but interconnected cottage industries, craft communities, school groups and small-scale manufacturers utilising waste plastic as a newfound resource and adding value in the form of skill, knowledge and cultural content.”


Victoria’s Professor Simon Fraser, who co-supervised Lionel with Industrial Design lecturer Jeongbin Ok, says the long-term benefits of Lionel’s design solution could be felt far and wide.

“It could improve digital literacy in the Pacific and encourage students to seek careers in science and design,” says Professor Fraser.


“This would, in turn, be the catalyst for the establishment of new industries and companies in the Pacific based around 3D printing.”




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