Garbage in Paradise: Inside the Maldives’ Trash-Only Island

Thilafushi, the Maldives’ garbage dump, has been called a ‘toxic bomb in the ocean.’

man picks trash maldives islands
A worker looks for metal scraps in the smoldering trash of Thilafushi, the Maldives Islands’ garbage-only island. (Photo: Hani Amir/Flickr)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Out of sight, out of mind is generally the rule of thumb around the globe when it comes to the garbage we create every day. No matter how religious we might be about recycling, invariably each one of us is still responsible for filling a garbage bag or two each week, which then gets sets out on the curb, and—poof!—magically disappears.

Thilafushi is repository to all of the trash from the 100 islands that host tourist accommodations.

In supersized nations like the United States, Canada, Russia, or Germany, landfills are usually hidden from view (out of sight, out of mind) but in small island-nations like the Maldives, entire islands have been turned into dumps.

The name of the Maldivian rubbish island is Thilafushi. It sits just four miles off the main island of Male and is distinguished by the thick black smoke rising from it all day long. To reach the trash-only island, you pass Prison Island (to hold miscreants and scofflaws) and Apartment Island (to hold the country’s ever-expanding human population).

On Male, rocked recently by a presidential coup, more than 100,000 people live squeezed into one-and-a-half-square miles. Despite the cramped space on an island in the heart of the Indian Ocean, theirs is a modern existence, with cars and motor scooters, apartment buildings, shopping malls, markets and government offices. Nearby, Airport Island is connected by a flotilla of floating taxis.

All of this living produces a lot of garbage. Rather than sink it to the bottom of the sea (which I’m sure was the practice not so long ago), it is now all boated to Thilafushi, which is today completely covered in trash. Sadly, a poisonous fog hangs over what might have been just another of the 1,200 gorgeous Maldivian islands.

This one is a faux island, though, created in 1992 to hold the country’s garbage. Today it receives 300 to 400 tons of trash each day. Locals are responsible, of course, but so are the 850,000 tourists who visited last year, each of them producing more than seven pounds of trash a day (five times what small island Maldivians produce). A few of the resort islands have focused on recycling, reducing use of plastic, and have built their own waste-to-energy plants, but just a handful.

One major worry is that if toxic products such as mercury, lead, or asbestos leak into the sea, it will have a dramatic effect on the undersea environment and will eventually find its way into the food chain. Initially, the garbage was buried on the island; now it is burned. The nasty smoke gives residents of Male headaches and coughs, especially when the winds blow from the west. Bluepeace, the 30-year-old environmental group that monitors local issues, calls the garbage island a “toxic bomb in the ocean.”

Fifty years ago when waste produced on islands was fish bones and coconut shells, getting rid of it was simple. Toss it into the sea. Those days are long gone. On every island I’ve visited in the Maldives, there are trash heaps lining one shoreline or another. This was made most evident the first time I visited—just after the tsunami of 2004—because the big waves that washed over the islands carried the trash everywhere.

With sea levels rising in the Maldives—eight inches in the last century—and with 80 percent of the nation’s land less than three feet above sea level, where to put trash is just one of its many problems.

Maldivian authorities say they are working to reduce the toxic effects from Thilafushi. A proposed law would limit the types of garbage allowed to be burned to only organic materials. Another solution is exporting its recyclable waste, mostly iron and plastic, to China, Malaysia, and neighboring India.

Meaning that soon the Maldives’ two biggest exports will be fish...and garbage.

What should island-nations, like the Maldives, do with the trash they produce: a) bury it; b) burn it; or c) ship it to China? Tell us your answer in the comments.

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