Tilafushi coming out clean

The Maldives might be a paradise for tourists, but its battle against waste has been daunting.

Words & photographs by Milos Prelevic

As I boarded the plane to the Maldives, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement mixed with curiosity. While most people were eager to hit the beaches and resorts, I was more interested in exploring the backstage of this beautiful island country. As soon as I landed at the Male airport, I was struck by the sight of numerous seaplanes, ferryboats, speedboats, and liveaboards buzzing around to cater to the half a million tourists who visit the Maldives every year.

Next to the airport spans the artificial island of Hulhumale which expands at a breathtaking pace to accommodate the ever-growing population of the Maldives, which currently stands at around 540,000 people. However, with such rapid development came its own set of challenges.

One of the most pressing issues was the massive amount of waste generated every day – a whopping 800 tons. All of it ends up on the man-made island Tilafushi where only around 4% is recycled while the rest of it was burned. The island was made in 1991 for the sole purpose of becoming a landfill. And that’s what it was for 30 years, with no plans for improvement. It became a significant problem really fast.

This unsustainable practice was taking a heavy toll on the fragile marine ecosystem, prompting the launch of the Greater Male Environmental Improvement and Waste Management project in 2018. I was eager to see the progress made under this initiative, so I teamed up with a local friend who organised a trip to Tilafushi for me. 

As we enjoyed coffee while watching the ocean, I asked him if he would join me on the trip to the ‘trash island’, but he wasn’t very keen on it. He has already been there and describes the experience as “hideous” and wouldn’t want to go there again. I got worried a bit.

A few days after I stood on the pier, waiting for a representative of the project, I couldn’t help but notice a massive building being constructed nearby. I wondered what its purpose could be. I could feel the heat of the morning sun and my thoughts were interrupted by the approach of Ahmed, the representative. To my surprise, he revealed that the building would be used for packing and shipping waste – a clear indication that this project was serious about tackling the trash problem. 

We boarded a speedboat and set off for the infamous ‘trash island’. As we approached, the sheer magnitude of the problem became apparent: a mountain of trash loomed large before us.

The burning that lasted for 30 years was nowhere in sight. I’ve seen the images before, and they were horrifying. As a massive mountain that is sometimes not even visible from the smoke made from burning the trash. “We don’t burn trash anymore,” said Ahmed. “Trash is being sorted and prepared for its designated stations,” he continued. I couldn’t help but notice the trash in the water as well, but before I could even voice my concerns, Ahmed led me to an area where containers will be used to transfer the waste, effectively preventing any more trash from ending up in the ocean.

As we walked past the massive garbage mountain, I tried to imagine how much space it occupies those 800 tons of trash generated every day. I tried identifying some of the items, but I couldn’t really. Everything was ground down in order to occupy less space.

I noticed massive machines wrapping waste in bales, which would soon be used in a waste-to-energy plant. As Ahmed explains, the plant has the potential to generate an impressive 50,000 megawatts by the end of 2027, and 80% of commercial waste would be treated, properly disposed of, or recycled. The positive impact on the environment would be staggering, with a reduction of 28,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the year 2027 alone, provided the project was followed through to completion.

And the big massive mountain of rubbish? It will be turned into a compost, and it will be beautified with plants and greenery. This endeavour additionally seeks to promote public awareness regarding the importance of sustainable practices such as recycling, waste reduction, and the avoidance of littering.

As we returned to Male, I couldn’t help but notice how clean the main street was, with garbage trucks efficiently picking up trash. However, the project’s long-term success would depend heavily on the participation and cooperation of the locals.

The Maldives might be a paradise for tourists, but its battle against waste has been daunting. Nevertheless, with initiatives like the Greater Male Environmental Improvement and Waste Management project, there is hope for a cleaner, more sustainable future for this beautiful island nation.


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