BY OYAOL NGIRAIRIKL
Journal Staff

Nyssa Roberts, instructor, watches closely as students work on their creations.

MALAKAL, Palau — The Belau Eco Glass program’s current facility, which opened last year, sits near the dock in Malakal. It falls under the states’ solid waste division and is a huge warehouse with five furnaces, though it could probably fit more.

But it’s a start to what Katsuo Fuji, consultant, special advisor and ambassador for economic development and investment for Koror State Government, said could become a new industry for the state and ultimately, the nation.

Fuji is working with local tour companies to include a glass blowing workshop into their packages, which he hopes will cost around $60 per person for two classes, each about two hours long. He said the class offers a different dimension to the Palau experience for visitors.

“They come and learn,” he said. “They make omiyage.” Omiyage is the Japanese word for souvenir that is more ofa gift travelers purchase abroad and bring home to family, friends and colleagues. Palau, like many other small developing island nations is heavily dependent on tourism, an industry that was demolished by COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism markets are still struggling with the pandemic but slowly countries in the Indo-Pacific and around the world are easing restrictions for travelers returning home, making it easier for people to travel. Recently, China Airlines started flights between Taiwan and Palau, which have been full. Palau is also anticipating the start of flights from Brisbane, Australia via Papua New Guinea on Air Niugini. There’s also been discussions with Singapore officials about flights between the two countries. 

Fuji hopes to have the program in place so the program is ready when tourist numbers do increase. He said the goal is to earn $10,000 a month.

Belau Eco Glass welcomes anyone to come in and learn the basics of the art of glass blowing. Nyssa Roberts, senior recycling technician, teaches two classes each weekday. The two-hour classes can accommodate up to four students.

“It’s a lot of fun to do,” Roberts said. She hopes her passion for the art helps spark interest in the community and that, ultimately, the program can grow out of its current government-funded situation and help create a program where glass artists can create their own private enterprise that partners with the government.

The facility has a gift shop where she and other glass artists can sell their creations. Currently, they are paid by the state. Her hope, however, is the gift shop will also be able to pay a consignment percentage. “Hopefully, we’ll get to that point.”

Katsuo Fuji, consultant, shows the different plastics that are shredded at Belau Eco Glass.
Photos by Oyaol Ngirairikl

Roberts is a Palauan who was born in Hawaii. She attended primary school in Palau before her family moved to Guam where she attended and then graduated from St. John’s School in 2010. She went on to study at University of Hawaii where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition — but tucked between her science and nutrition courses she found herself in a glass blowing course. “I enjoyed the physical work, the repetitiveness, the creativity … I like thinking about what I’m making and how much is needed to make this cup a certain size.”

Like Fuji, she has high hopes for the program. She enjoys the fact that it helps remove plastics and glass out of the landfill in an island where land is a precious commodity. It also falls in line, she said, with the nation’s global role as an advocate of environmental protection while potentially providing jobs that people can be passionate about.  

Fuji’s vision takes the program beyond a mere experience.

The facility uses recycled glass from trash picked up from homes and businesses in Palau that are then separated out, cleaned, and crushed. But also, the glass blowing furnaces are fueled by oils derived from pyrolysis of plastics.

The state’s solid waste program separates out plastics, including bottles, bottle caps, plastic shopping bags and packaging. The plastics are shredded and fed into a machine that breaks the plastic down and the final product is an oil, which is then fed into the generators that help get the furnaces going.

“It helps reduce the energy cost of the facility,” Fuji said. He was able to get the plastic-into-energy system for free from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which agreed to the donation. Fuji said the program only had to pay the shipping cost. mbj