Tonga is running out of space for more than 30,000 abandoned cars. But it has a plan to fix that

The Kingdom of Tonga looks like paradise, but its lush coconut palms nurse a hidden problem that threatens the health of its people.

Thousands of cars are imported here every year, but, due to the cost of removing them, they never leave. 

When a car comes to the end of its life, it's usually abandoned. Tropical downpours wash the rusted metal, chemicals from flaking paint, and oil residue into the earth, contaminating the drinking water supply.

In the past few decades, scrap cars have accumulated. The main island of Tongatapu has about 30,000 — equivalent to one rusted hulk for every three people. 

Now, Tonga is racing to deal with this mountain of a problem before it's too late.

Fortunately, a solution appears to be at hand.

A giant car graveyard

Located between Hawaii and New Zealand, over 3,000km east of Brisbane, Tonga's archipelago of islands is an expensive place to send a car.

Once a vehicle gets here, it's used for a long time.

At peak hour in Tonga's capital city of Nuku'alofa, the wide roads are jammed with cars that have seen better days. Windows are cracked, paint is peeling, and engines are kept working by the ingenuity of the drivers.

A rusty car in Tonga's capital city of Nuku'alofa

A rust-eaten imported car in Tonga's capital city of Nuku'alofa.(ABC Science: Petria Ladgrove)

In 2020, Saimone Vuki grew frustrated with the sight of broken-down cars rusting outside of homes.

At the time, there was no officially designated site for car waste in the country so he started actively collecting scrap cars from around the island.

"Our mission is to try and remove [the scrap cars] from the homes and bring it to one place," he says.

Saimone Vuki

Saimone Vuki began collecting abandoned cars, frustrated at the lack of government action.(ABC Science: Petria Ladgrove)

That place is down a dirt road lined with palm trees and taro plants.  Here, on 8 acres of Saimone's land, thousands of cars are stacked in long zig-zagging avenues of rusted metal.  

It's Tonga's main car dump, and it holds at least 2,000 abandoned vehicles.

"I would love to grow some crops here, but I would rather do this than let all this scrap metal stay with the people at their homes," Mr Vuki says.

Abandoned cars on the main island of Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga

The abandoned cars are stacked up to five high to maximise storage space.(ABC Science: Petria Ladgrove)

Mr Vuki isn't only worried about the 30,000 cars already in the environment, but also the estimated tens of thousands more that will follow in the years ahead. 

He's started the Tongan Recycling Association, an organisation made up of individuals and private companies who support reducing, reusing, and recycling waste in Tonga.

The organisation wants recycling to be thought about from the moment cars and other consumer goods are imported — so they don't pile up as waste.

"We want every project here in Tonga to have a recycling component where at the end of the project they have to ship out all those materials they send to Tonga," he says.

Fortunately, Tonga has a track record of managing other big waste problems.

Over the past two decades, it's made massive improvements to the way it's handled a new problem: household waste.

The rise of verge collection

For most of the last century, household waste management was largely a foreign concept in Tonga.

The reason for this was simple: there was little waste. Most people lived in small rural communities, made up of simple houses surrounded by taro and vegetable farms.

The small economy meant there were few imported consumer goods or materials that didn't easily degrade, such as plastic. 

Ha'apai Group, Tonga, Pacific

Shipping a foreign-made car to the Tongan archipelago can cost thousands of dollars.(Getty: Oliver Strewe)

Then, as the economy grew, the rubbish piled up. By the early 2000s, it had become a major problem.

Heaps of trash had accumulated next to villages. People burnt the waste at roadsides or let it flush out to sea.

The government took action, passing the country's first waste management act.

In 2005, Tongans began waking up to a new sound, one that was already familiar to many people in other countries.

It was the morning rattle and thud of the weekly rubbish collection.

Rubbish is being collected, but there's more than ever

Tonga's Taphuia landfill

Tonga's Taphuia landfill is rapidly filling up with household waste.(ABC Science: Petria Ladgrove)

Almost 20 years on, the rubbish collection service has been a success, concentrating thousands of tonnes of waste that could have ended up littering the environment.

There are now public rubbish bins along the foreshore and the beachfront is clean and tidy. 

But this success hasn't solved the problem of waste generation.

The household rubbish collected by the government is taken to a publicly owned dump, built in 2005 in the dead centre of Tongatapu, called the Tapuhia landfill.

According to Stalin Naufahu, the head of special projects at Waste Authority Limited, the public enterprise to manage Tonga's waste, Tapuhia is receiving more rubbish than ever.

"We're seeing a huge increase of waste that's being generated from residential households," he says.

"As consumption increases ... that means more waste."

Stalin Naufahu

Stalin Naufahu at the Taphuia landfill. (ABC Science: Petria Ladgrove)

Standing on the edge of the landfill, he points to a pit that was meant to be gradually filled with rubbish over 10 years.

After six years, it's already overflowing.

Mr Naufahu worries that sites like this one won’t be able to keep up with the current rate of consumption.

"We track the amount of imports coming in because it's almost a guarantee that everything that's being imported into the country will become waste eventually."

One solution might be more intensive recycling of waste, including outsourcing this work to the private sector.

"The overall plan is to shift away from doing everything ourselves and empower all these local recycling businesses."

Shipping compacted cars back to Japan

Recycling cans and bottles can be done locally, but repurposing abandoned cars is more difficult.

And as Mr Naufahu points out, the clunkers are piling up. Each year, 2,000 vehicles are abandoned.

A car abandoned on the roadside in Tonga

A car abandoned on the roadside in Tonga.(ABC Science: Petria Ladgrove)

In many cases, these cars were imported second-hand, which meant they ended up being abandoned relatively quickly.

Meanwhile, the accumulating car waste is harming the environment.

"There are concerns regarding the chemicals within the vehicles leaking out into the environment as it rusts over time," Mr Naufahu says.

"The main concern is leachate from the vehicles leaking and affecting underground water systems."

Mr Naufahu says the problem is an urgent one.

"We have to move now."

In response, the government is looking at two separate solutions.

The first is a policy that prohibits cars over 15 years old being imported so that these imported cars last longer on the roads.

But this is facing backlash from the public, who say it will make buying a car more expensive.

Abandoned cars on the main island of Tongatapu

Tonga's six-month-long rainy season washes chemicals from the abandoned cars into the groundwater.

The other solution is more ambitious: shipping abandoned cars back to Japan, where they mostly came from.

To do this, it has received funding from Japan to build a scrap vehicle recycling centre, due to open later this year.

Here, compactors will crush cars into neat one-metre-by-one-metre cubes, to be exported for scrap metal recycling.

Teams will travel around the country looking for scrap vehicles and getting permission from owners to include them in the recycling operation.

It's hoped compacting and recycling will gradually thin out Tonga's car graveyards.

The mountains of abandoned cars are an imposing challenge, but Mr Naufahu is optimistic about the future.

This isn't just wishful thinking, he says, but grounded in the improvements he's seen in Tonga's waste management over the past 20 years.

The country has gone from "people dumping waste in their backyards" to having centralised rubbish collection.

Twenty years from now, he says, it may have solved the issue of car waste.

Other Pacific island nations face similar problems with increasing refuse and high costs to remove large waste. Mr Naufahu hopes they may follow Tonga's lead.

"We're hoping what the other Pacific countries can learn from is that you don't have to wait for help to come before you start taking the initiative," he says.