I was lucky enough to go to the Maldives this January as part of my MSc Marine Systems and Policies at the University of Edinburgh. The Maldives is a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), a group of 26 atolls located in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka and 820km long. Most of the islands are inhabited by local people or are entirely resorts, with the economy relying heavily on tourism. We were allowed to stay on the Island of Magoodhoo, Fafuu atoll, a local island with a current population 838, within the Marine Research and Higher Education (MaRHE) centre. As part of our time in the Maldives we each had to conduct a research project of our own.
I’m really interested in microplastics and how they affect marine ecosystems (I’ve just started my dissertation project looking at how microplastics effect coral bleaching and disease). Plastic pollution continues to grow and more and more studies are revealing the negative impacts plastic has on marine organisms such as entangling marine mammals, with microplastics lowering species survival, growth and fecundity when ingested. The amount of plastic litter on Maldivian islands and surrounding sea is especially significant and increasing. This is concerning as plastic can persist for decades with beaches considered a major sink. However, management of waste is especially challenging in the Maldives as the population is highly dispersed across numerous islands with costs of ensuring services high, in addition to a vulnerable marine ecosystem requiring special consideration when designing mitigation measures.
So I already knew that I wanted to focus my project on plastic waste, especially as waste management is identified as a key element for “environmental vulnerability” of SIDS, a complicated issue due to population growth and limited availability of resources. I thought it would be interesting to try and understand how plastic waste enters the ocean and why waste management is so difficult on SIDS. I did this from a social perspective, carrying out semi-constructed interviews with the President of the Island Council, the Head of the Women’s Committee and a research assistant at the MaRHE centre. I also made observations around the island and within the kitchen of the MaRHE centre, which was run by locals.
When I arrived in the Maldives I had a very preconceived idea (like many others) that the locals just didn’t care about littering – why else would there be so much plastic waste around? My view completely changed after this study. The people of Magoodhoo are brilliant at recycling, much better than anywhere else I have been. Within the kitchen of MaRHE center, many things are reused such as glass jars for storing food paste, polystyrene boxes for storing potatoes and coconuts, and plastic bottles cut in half used for soap. Large oil bottles are used as plant pots at the farm and greenhouse. Around the island so many things are recycled such as chairs made out of old fishing lines and plant pots from old oil tubs.
Magoodhoo’s women’s committee has 46 members that meet weekly. The committee cleans the entire island monthly, picking up all litter in addition to running beach cleans with schools. Annual projects such as “Help for Environment 2017” work with children to make objects from waste materials, such as plastic flowers which is then sold at resorts to raises awareness of waste issues. She believed people’s attitude on Magoodhoo has changed and they are now more environmentally aware.
The main thing holding Magoodhoo back for effective waste management is not the people’s attitude but the available facilities. Magoodhoo has a small waste site located on the south side of the island with seawalls. The President of the Council informed me that the incinerator is currently not functioning due to maintenance issues. Afterwards the Council wishes to bid for a recycling centre. He also told me of strategies to improve waste management locally and regionally. Further study confirmed this: the National Solid Waste Management Policy (2008) aims to develop local Island Waste Management Centres (IWMCs) and Regional Waste Management Sites (RWMSs) for the Maldives, although progress is minimal. Lack of funding and facilities appears to be jeopardising political efforts, with development slow, highlighting a major issue in waste management on SIDS.
The people of Magoodhoo are doing pretty much all they can with the facilities they have, with waste awareness continuing to grow hopefully they will be able to push for more funding with support from the government and other investors. It is also important to remember that the plastic litter seen washed up on the beaches isn’t just from the Maldives. One of plastic’s properties that makes it so popular is it durability – that tiny piece of plastic could have come from anywhere in the world. Ultimately, thinking globally and acting locally is a fundamental attitude to reduce such an environmental threat and all sectors of the community should take their individual steps across all countries. A combination of enhancing ecological consciousness through education and effective legislation is probably the best way to solve such environmental problems. It is exciting that we are already seeing this in the UK but momentum must be maintained. It is vital that plastic pollution is reduced worldwide as it will not only reduce the threat to wildlife but will lessen the strain on SIDS to manage the extra waste washing up on their beautiful beaches.