Thilafushi: Trash Island is a Toxic Secret in Maldives
Updated: Feb 15
I was working as a Marine Biologist at a luxury resort in Maldives when I visited Thilafushi.
This garbage island has been on fire for 27 years!
Along with fellow Marine Biologist Kylie Merritt & Maldivian Dive Master Haisham Rasheed, we took the work ferry and then a speed boat to “trash island” as known by the locals. Boat after boat, day after day, year after year; garbage is bought from across the country and lit on fire.
Maldives “the island nation” is made up of 1,190 islands and has a local population of under 400,000. Thilafushi neighbours the capital city of Male’ where 130,000 locals live on a 5.8 square km island.
Male’ is the throbbing heart of Maldives and is more densely populated and congested than London.
It is starkly contrasting to the rest of the Maldives that takes a more laid-back island pace approach to life.. It’s the hustle and bustle, it’s fast-past, it’s where deals are made and hearts are broken.
When we gazed to the west of Male’ we could clearly see the thick cloud of smoke that endlessly leaves Thilafushi and disperses ever so gently into the blue sky.
As our boat got closer to Thilafushi, it became obvious that this island isn’t like any other island in Maldives. There were NO white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, grass huts or crystal clear turquoise water.
On Thilafushi, all this tranquility is replaced with mountains of rubbish, the smell rotting garbage, fires scattered everywhere and a thick toxic sludge creeping constantly into the surrounding waters.
Depending on the season and the direction of the wind, this toxic stench stretches over the staff village of Thilafushi and onto Male’ effecting thousands of people. And the smell, did I mention the terrible, gut wrenching smell of layers upon piles of garbage?
We were accompanied on Thilafushi by a friend of a friend who worked on the island. Otherwise access is very limited and controlled, it ain’t no tourist stop! Our friend manages his cousins fleet of speed boats out of Thilafushi, co-ordinating dispersal to resorts and the maintenance routine. He had been living on the island for only a short few months and had already noticed a decline in his overall health.
Thilafushi was built to solve a problem, but instead it created MANY new ones.
The Maldives is one of the most exclusive and unique travel destinations in the world. The world got word of this piece of paradise faster than what their infrastructure, policies and waste management protocols could keep up.
A popular destination for honeymooners, families and diving advocates, but as the influx of tourists rapidly hit the country, the environmental issues were soon to follow. These days, over 1 million tourists visit every year. Each of these tourists produce 3.5kg’s of garbage every day of their dream vacation.
That means that every piece of plastic I used in Maldives in the year I lived there either ended up flying off the garbage boat into the sea, or was burnt at Thilafushi. Even though I tried not to use plastic water bottles, straws, plastic bags, plastic cutlery & soft-drink bottles, I still produced A LOT OF GARBAGE!!!!!!!
Originally Thilafushi was a lagoon enclosed by coral reefs, then called Thilafalhu. In an effort to resolve the garbage predicament in the Maldives, the government came to the decision to reclaim Thilafalhu as a landfill in 1991. But this “solution” has just lead to more serious environmental issues.
Each day 330 tonnes of garbage is bought to Thilafushi by boats.
This rubbish is dumped in large piles and is eventually used to reclaim land and increase the size of the island. Scrap metals such as copper, tin, zinc and steel are separated and exported to India. Apart from the separation of ‘some’ plastic bottles, cardboard boxes and used oils, the rest of the garbage is dumped and burnt. This island has been a constant fire for over 20 years!
Bluepeace Maldives described this island as a “toxic bomb”. There are NO recycling facilities in the Maldives for the safe disposal of hazardous waste such as used batteries, asbestos, lead, mercury and used electrical goods (e-waste).
This means that this hazardous waste is mixed and disposed of inappropriately with all the municipal waste. This is an increasingly serious ecological and health problem that the Maldives is pushing under the carpet.
Thilafushi is unlike landfill as it’s a re-claimed lagoon-fill. This means toxic chemicals and heavy metals can easily seep out into coastal waters and enter the food web. Once these nasty chemicals are in the food chain, it impossible to remove them and ultimately end up on our dinner plate in the shape of fish, squid or lobster.
This experience we had at Thilafushi was one we’ll never forget. Not only was it obvious to us that there is a serious waste management problem in the Maldives, but it highlighted the global plastic pollution problem.
We are living in a day and age that everything is made for our convenience.
Trying to save 5 minutes? No problem, put it in a take-away container. It broke? Don’t worry, chuck it out and buy a new one. We grab our coffee on the run, we have our supermarket food delivered to our door, and everything you buy is wrapped or bagged in plastic.
In Australia our waste problem may not be as obvious as Maldives, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Our waste problem doesn’t come in the form of a garbage fire, plastic on our beaches or a toxic sludge. It is disguised as plastic convenience, a recycling system that has no backbone and a country that chooses mining over protecting world heritage reef.
There are only 400,000 Maldivian’s, there are 23 million Aussie’s and a whopping 316 million Yankees (American’s). If the waste problem is so prevalent and disturbing in a country with such a small population, imagine if you dug into the pollution problem in developed nations that have the money to keep it a treasure hunt?
Throwing away your waste in the rubbish bin and recycling the items you can isn’t good enough any more.
In Australia we have an out of sight, out of mind kind of approach to our waste. You put your plastic wrapper in the trash bin and your plastic coke bottle in the recycle bin. Dust your hands and pat yourself on the back.. Do you even know what happens to your rubbish once the garbage truck has come by your front door and emptied your bins? Do you believe that the containers, bottles and cardboard that you put in the recycling bin actually got melted down and made into something else?
This is a global issue but change starts with the consumer.
REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, REPURPOSE & RECYCLE
Check out our newest blog post focusing on the 5R’s to living a more eco-conscious lifestyle
Being Eco-Conscious isn’t only for green nerds; its a creative, cheaper and resourceful way of life.