Hundreds of miles off the coast of Sri Lanka, an archipelago of beautiful islands draws tourists from around the world. But while the white-sand beaches and sparkling blue waters of the Maldives might seem like paradise to some, there is a darker side to this popular honeymoon destination. In fact, there’s one place in particular that won’t be appearing in any brochures.
Located just a few miles from the region’s bustling capital of Malé, the island of Thilafushi started life as a sleepy lagoon in the Indian Ocean. But like its idyllic neighbors, it has been transformed beyond all recognition as more and more visitors have flocked to the Maldives. And now Thilafushi has become something else entirely – a terrifying reminder of where progress can ultimately lead.
Yes, while the high-rises of Malé and the five-star resorts of its surrounding islands still attract tourists in their droves, the shores of Thilafushi will not be welcoming sun-seekers any time soon. Instead, a vast ecological time bomb festers on the island, slowly seeping its poison into the surrounding ocean. But how did such a beautiful place take such a dark and brutal turn?
An archipelago of some 1,200 islands scattered across 115 square miles of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are located around 610 miles from the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. Historically, these beautiful atolls have been inhabited by fishermen along with their families. And here, the people sustained themselves on the abundant supply of marine life.
However, all that changed in the 1970s. You see, while the United Nations had dismissed the possibility of developing the Maldives as a holiday destination during the previous decade, the first resort opened its doors to visitors in 1972. And before long, tourism had become the backbone of the islands’ economy.
Today, there are more than 130 dedicated resorts scattered across the Maldives’ 200 inhabited islands. And in many cases, entire islands are devoted to a single establishment. Since 2009 independent guesthouses have also been opening in local communities, extending the appeal of the destination beyond that of luxury hotels.
With their picture-postcard beaches, warm ocean and tropical climate, it’s easy to see why these islands welcomed almost 1.4 million visitors in 2017. And while the majority of those tourists came from Europe and Asia, there were also around 50,000 travelers who trekked thousands of miles from North America to swim and sunbathe on the atolls’ beautiful shores.
But even as families and honeymooning couples sip cocktails in the Maldives’ most popular resorts, there is one corner of the archipelago that they will be sure to avoid. In fact, there isn’t a single tourist on Thilafushi – an artificial island just over two miles long and less than a quarter of a mile across.
Interestingly, things haven’t always been this way. And before the 1990s, Thilafushi was a picturesque lagoon just like those that now play host to the Maldives’ plush developments and resorts. Yet, for this tiny scrap of land, a far different fate was in store – one that continues to haunt its shores to this day.
By the 1990s, the Maldives’ tourism industry had been flourishing for two decades. But with the new influx of visitors came a steady flow of trash – something that the locals struggled to deal with. And as Malé developed into one of the world’s most overcrowded cities, the problem of what to do with the islands’ waste began to grow.
Then a bizarre solution was proposed. Apparently, the problem of the Maldives’ waste could be solved by transforming Thilafushi into a massive landfill site. And in December 1991 the idea was approved – with the first boatload of garbage arriving from the capital the following month.
Initially, waste disposal on Thilafushi was a relatively simple operation. Using a landing craft, a wheel loader, two excavators and a few trucks, workers began the task of processing the trash that arrived on the island. Soon, they had created deep pits with a capacity of some 37,500 cubic feet.
At first, trash from Malé made its way straight into the pits without any sorting or segregation. Then, when these dumping grounds were full, they were simply topped with the debris from local construction and leveled off using sand. And because of this process, Thilafushi itself began to grow.
Then, five years after Thilafushi had become the garbage dump of the Maldives, the authorities realized that they had a unique opportunity on their hands. As a result, then, they decided to lease the rapidly expanding land to entrepreneurs keen to use the space for industrial ventures. And, at first, 22 companies got on board with the bizarre scheme.
Over the years, waste continued to arrive at Thilafushi – and the scrap of land dubbed Rubbish Island continued to grow. In fact, for the best part of two decades, an average of 330 tons of trash was shipped to its facilities every day. Each 24-hour period saw the garbage layer increase in size by an entire square meter.
During this time, visitors to Thilafushi were very different from those that flocked to the rest of the Maldives. And instead of seaplanes and luxury yachts, freighters queued up on the shores to dump their loads of trash on the island. Meanwhile, further inland, migrant laborers toiled amidst the piles of garbage.
Before long, the number of companies leasing land at Thilafushi had skyrocketed to 54, with over 1.2 million feet of island dedicated to industrial activities. But the island wasn’t just a place to dump trash. It also became a hub of boat manufacturing, warehousing, methane bottling and cement packing, as businesses sprung up on the reclaimed land.
But while the growth of Thilafushi provided an economic boon for the region, it soon became an environmental disaster. According to experts, the average visitor to the Maldives produces a staggering 3.5 kilograms of garbage every day. That’s more than twice what a citizen of Malé gets through in the same amount of time.
Furthermore, tourists in the Maldives produce five times more waste than locals living in other parts of the archipelago. Altogether, that meant a huge amount of trash making its way to Thilafushi. And, worryingly, it wasn’t just crisp packets, plastic bottles and other day-to-day detritus either.
According to Malé-based environmentalist Ali Rilwan, a whole host of toxic trash has landed on Thilafushi over the years. She told The Guardian in 2009, “We are seeing used batteries, asbestos, lead and other potentially hazardous waste mixed with the municipal solid wastes being put into the water.”
“Although it is a small fraction of the total,” Rilwan continued, “these wastes are a source of toxic heavy metals, and it is an increasingly serious ecological and health problem in the Maldives.” And while the noxious materials dumped on Thilafushi polluted the water, fumes from burning spread through the air.
Then in 2011 the problem got even worse. Apparently, incoming freighters had grown tired of the long waits to dump their loads on Thilafushi, meaning the crews had begun offloading the garbage straight into the ocean instead. Ultimately, the authorities responded by placing a temporary ban on importing trash to the island.
Today, that ban is still in place, and much of the Maldives’ garbage is now shipped across the ocean to India. Even so, Thilafushi remains an ecological nightmare – a worrying concentration of waste that the environmental organization Bluepeace has called a “toxic bomb.” But how can the island be cleaned up?
In 2013 the U.S. filmmaker and adventure enthusiast Alison Teal appeared on the first season of Naked and Afraid. The Discovery Channel reality show follows a different pair of contestants on each episode as they try to survive without water, food or basic supplies.
For three weeks, Teal survived the hostile environment of a deserted island in the Maldives. And, eventually, she used some of the plastic waste from the beaches to build a raft and return to civilization. However, the scale of the trash problem on the otherwise beautiful archipelago left a lasting impression.
The following year, Teal returned to the Maldives – this time with a camera crew in tow. Apparently, her goal was to educate the world about the issue of waste disposal on the islands. And, unfortunately, she soon found that the problem she had encountered while filming Naked and Afraid had grown even worse.
“When I went back, I didn’t know what to expect,” Teal told HuffPost in 2014. “It was like walking into your home to find that it had been trashed. You couldn’t take a step without [finding] a water bottle. It was a million times worse than when I was there – and it was already bad.”
Apparently, locals revealed to Teal that her previous visit hadn’t been a fair reflection of the waste issue on the islands. In fact, a team had spent a week cleaning up the island before filming began. But now the full scale of the problem could be seen. Shocked, the television personality enlisted the help of the locals to tackle the trash once more.
As well as helping clean up the island featured on the show, Teal also visited Thilafushi. There, the crew captured some shocking footage of conditions on the island – even years after the government had banned importing trash. Yet they soon realized that the problem extended beyond the archipelago itself.
“Most of this plastic wasn’t even from the Maldives,” Teal explained in Alison’s Adventures – a short movie released in 2015. “It was brought from all over the world by ocean currents. It is truly incredible how far a plastic bottle can travel and destroy paradise. And the bottles just sat there and eventually burned into toxic fumes which constantly flowed over the capital city Malé, which holds more than one third of the country’s population.”
After her visit to Thilafushi, Teal went viral with her footage of Rubbish Island – as well as her own unique solution. Apparently, the adventurer believes that the planet’s excess waste should be recycled into new products, such as the pink bikini she models in the 2015 short. However, trash in the oceans is a global problem – and one that swimwear alone is unlikely to solve.
In fact, much of the trash that humans produce around the world eventually finds its way into the oceans. But while all pollution is worrying, there is one trend that has proved a particular cause of concern. Apparently, more than eight billion metric tons of plastic has been produced throughout history, with over six billion of that having ended up as waste.
Even worse, only a tiny percentage of that plastic has ever been recycled. That leaves a staggering 79 percent to make its way to landfills and, eventually, the sea. And if we continue to produce the material at the same rate, experts predict that landfills will hold 12 billion metric tons of plastic in three decades’ time.
Even now, it is estimated that some 18 billion pounds of plastic waste finds its way into the world’s oceans every year. And along with the ubiquitous plastic bottle, items such as plastic straws and cigarette butts are among the worst culprits. But this floating trash doesn’t just look bad – it’s also wreaking havoc with marine life.
In fact, marine waste – of which some 80 percent is plastic – is affecting the lives of around 800 animal species around the world, according to the United Nations. Shockingly, this includes endangered sea turtles. In fact, some 50 percent of the creatures worldwide have ingested the deadly material at some point during their lives.
Moreover, plastic waste is also responsible for the deaths of around one million seabirds every year. And as well as the dangers associated with ingesting the material, thousands of animals also die from becoming entangled in floating trash. Unfortunately, though, many of these items take hundreds of years to biodegrade, meaning the problem isn’t going to go away any time soon.
So how can we solve the issue of deadly waste in our oceans? Teal told HuffPost, “The main thing to do would be to stop manufacturing water bottles, but that’s not going to happen.” That said, some countries have been taking steps in the right direction. In fact, many countries have imposed an outright ban on plastic bags, with other problematic items, such as straws, likely to follow.
But is it enough? According to some experts, cutting down on the production of single-use plastics can only do so much to solve the problem. Apparently, we also need to develop new, environmentally-friendly ways to recycle the raw material. And with this approach – along with improved governmental attitudes to recycling and trash collection – we may finally be able to dismantle sites like Thilafushi for good.
For now, however, Thilafushi continues to cast a dark shadow over the Maldives – a smouldering island of trash alongside some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And the authorities show no sign of wanting to slow down development in the region. In fact, they floated plans to make the island the country’s main commercial port back in 2015. Ultimately, though, nothing came of the ambitious scheme.
Meanwhile, the Maldives government has been struggling with a problem even bigger than Rubbish Island. You see, as ocean levels rise around the world, this low-lying group of atolls faces the prospect of disappearing beneath the waves. In fact, one official has suggested abandoning the country altogether in favor of a new home. And with the threats of both climate change and plastic pollution looming, it’s clear that this paradise is teetering on the edge.