5th Jul 2017 - Escape
Plastic in Paradise: A Maldives Field Report
The Maldives is an archipelago with a true Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde image: on the one side is the honeymoon standard of thatched huts on stilts built over the crystal clear turquoise lagoons and idyllic palm-studded atolls, whilst on the other is a nation at serious threat from rising sea levels, entire island rubbish dumps, and high-tide lines littered with plastic waste.
International surf coach and guide Felippe Dal Piero spent June in the Maldives, cruising from perfect surf spot to perfect surf spot aboard the Gurahali enjoying great waves and spectacular marine life. He also went ashore on various atolls to assess the extent of plastic pollution in the area and pick up as much litter as he could. We spoke with Felippe upon his return home to Portugal to find out more about the plastic problem in paradise.
We set out from Mali aboard the Gurahali, destined for the central atolls over 190 nautical miles away. The journey took a day and a half, but these atolls are worth the journey; they may not be as well known or visited as the North or South Male Atolls, but there are so many uninhabited islands and reef passes with empty world class waves to explore.
The Maldives are one of the world’s top luxury vacation destinations due to their clear waters, pristine white sand beaches and coral reefs.
It’s also a perfect destination for surfers and ocean lovers. There are perfect waves here, but the waves that break over the coral reefs aren’t as heavy or risky as those elsewhere; they are much more user-friendly and perfect for surfers who want to try surfing a reef break for the first time. As long as you can paddle onto a wave and set your line across it, you will have a great ride. It’s also really consistent with regular 2-3 foot swells, and the local surfers are friendly.
My favourite waves are the left-hand reef breaks in the Northern Atolls – Lohis, Honkies, and Chickens. I’m a goofy foot, so of course they are all lefts! The Maldives also have to be one of the best places on the planet for snorkeling – the islands are home to some of the richest coral reefs on Earth. Marine life includes well over 1,000 species of fish, almost 200 species of coral and more the 400 species of molluscs.
It may be known as a tropical paradise, but the traditional image of the Maldives hides a dirty secret: the world's biggest rubbish island. A few miles by boat from the Maldivian capital, Malé, Thilafushi (or Trash Island) is an artificial island created as a municipal landfill site. The artificial island was built to solve Malé's refuse problem but today, with more than 10,000 tourists a week visiting the Maldives and adding their waste, the rubbish island now covers 50 hectares (124 acres) and is growing.
It’s now become a race against time, with the Maldivian authorities struggling to minimize the toxic effects from Thilafushi. Garbage has already become the archipelago’s number two export, after the fishing industry.
I was shocked by the amount of plastic rubbish that covered the uninhabited, picture-postcard island that we visited in the Central Atolls. This was only one island - I couldn't bear to imagine what the other 1,200 islands looked like, covered in rubbish. The main thing that I think we as a society could do to combat this problem would be to stop manufacturing plastic water bottles and promote a mindset of ‘Reduce’, ‘Reuse’, ‘Recycle’. I’m so happy to be able to show surfers the Riz Boardshorts that I wear and explain to them that they are made from recycled plastic, because I believe we have to make better choices when we shop.
It’s hard to say which parts of the Maldives are worst affected by plastic pollution, but I have to mention Thilafushi - or Rubbish Island - again. It is a whole island created for the country to dump upwards of 330 tons of garbage every day - a figure attributed largely to the tourist industry on which the chain of atolls relies. To be honest though, there is a problem with plastic waste all over the Maldivian islands, even on the most beautiful and uninhabited islands.
One day, I went ashore to assess the extent of the problem and clear some of the litter. The most common items that I found were plastic bottles, plastic bags, cigarettes, food wrappers, plastic utensils, drinking straws, beverage cans, glass bottles, and micro-plastics. So much of that list is plastic of various types; it is definitely the biggest problem.
Much of that plastic pollution is locally generated, I believe. The capital, Malé, is four times more densely populated than London with no surrounding land whatsoever and building going right up to the water’s edge. It’s also estimated that every visitor to the Maldives generates 3.5kg of waste per day, although it’s unlikely that many of them will see what happens to the rubbish generated by their hotel or resort.
Given these facts, it’s hardly surprising that the Maldives has a waste disposal problem.
I had, and still have, the desire to do something about this because I think it is up to every single one of us to act and not just close our eyes and pretend that there is nothing that an individual can do. I have contacted some companies and let them know about this situation, inviting them to join clean ocean campaigns. I have also been part of these initiatives and I hope to create awareness about the issues facing our oceans in more people.
I have a deep appreciation and love for the ocean; it is where I spend most of my normal daily life and it is sad to witness this garbage problem. The Maldives is Paradise on Earth! It scares me not knowing what will happen next…
My family and I have made the choice to reduce the amount of plastic that we use and to try to live a life with a plastic free home. We make every effort to not buy food, (or anything else) that is wrapped in plastic; We bring our own cotton bags; We take glass bottles filled with water wherever we go, and use glass containers to store our food at home. We are also trying to take it a step further and live a chemical free life, using natural cleaning products to clean our home and ourselves. I really feel that I have to do something, even just as an individual.
I hope that we can find a solution to this problem.
Humans are able to create solutions for many of the different problems that we face in life, but somehow when it comes to garbage and conservation, society doesn’t appear to care so much. People may think “what difference can I make by myself?” or feel a long way removed from places such as the Maldives, but we need to think and act as one. Too many people care more about how to make more money and need to give similar consideration to their environment. Also, I wonder if a lot of people are still unaware of the circular lifecycle possibilities of plastic and how every single person can make a difference by changing their own habits. I believe we have many different possible ways to solve this problem, and for sure there is hope yet for the Maldives.
Let’s all think together, let’s all get together, and let’s support a plastic free life.
There are so many reasons why it is easy to fall in love with the Maldives.
As a surfer, the boat trip is the absolute pinnacle of travel dreams; the endless blue sea, the smell of the ocean, the happiness on everyone’s faces, and waking up every morning in front of incredible views and rubbing your eyes only to realise that it is in fact reality.
Every little island is surrounded by a reef resonating with every shade of turquoise you can think of. Snorkeling and swimming with manta rays, the gentle giants of the oceans, is a privilege; the dolphins, turtles, and other abundant marine life that surrounds you whilst you enjoy the ocean is incredible; the stars during the night are so clear; the sun sets with the most intense tones of orange, purple and pink you can imagine while the full moon rises on the other side, and of course there is the sound of the ever-present ocean…. I love this experience and I hope that I one day get to share the beautiful Maldivian islands with some of you sometime. Come and join us for an adventure that could change your life!
Aloha and Mahalo,
FROM THE ARTICLE