Thilafushi - "Rubbish Island" | Life Without Plastic
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Thilafushi – “Rubbish Island”

Okay, okay, I know. It’s been like 2 years since my last post. Sorry – my bad! I thought I’d come back into the blogging with a bang, so here are some my impressions/some pictures of my recent visit to “Rubbish Island” in the Maldives.

Since I graduated from St Andrews last June I have been working for IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in the Global Marine and Polar Programme. I’m now living in the Maldives doing work on climate change policy and waste management. It’s a fascinating and beautiful place, with a diverse culture and amazing underwater life.

For those of you who may not be familiar with “Rubbish Island”, it is an artificial island about 15 minutes away from Malé (the capital of the Maldives). It has been a landfill site since 1992, and waste comes on daily shipments from Malé and other surrounding islands.

This weekend I made a visit to see it for myself. I took a ferry and arrived on Thilafushi. Contrary to what other articles may make you believe, the whole island is not a landfill – in fact, though there is a lot of trash in the street, it is like any other local island (only it seemed quite bare to me).

The streets of Thilafushi

Waste in side alleys


Compressed cans on the left and.. sheets of metal(?) on the right


An odd number of abandoned cars and boats scattered around the island

There were some paint companies, a lot of construction companies and then of course multiple waste management companies. It actually took me about 30 minutes of walking around the island until I “followed my nose” (literally) to the smell of burning waste at the end of the island. I was surprised at how unrestricted my access was – I walked all around in the piles of garbage with nothing but a few puzzled looks from the men working there.

Arriving at the landfill site – that mountain in the background is just trash

It’s truly an apocalyptic site, with trash as far as the eye can see – plastic bottles, cans, aerosols, old shoes – basically anything that can be thrown away. The waste is burned in open fire, so there is lots of smoke everywhere. The site was truly overwhelming and upsetting – this is the true cost of single-use disposable waste.

The smoke is from the open fires to burn the waste


More smoke (luckily I brought a mask with me)


Aerosol can, plastic bottle, tarp.. What else can you identify?

Smoke so thick you can barely see a few metres in front of you

The trash is mostly handled by imported labour (Bangladeshi workers). I followed one worker for a while and watched him light different sections of the waste on fire with a rubber tyre. (Picture taken with his permission).


A labourer on Thilafushi sets and controls fires around the island with a burning tyre

Tourists produce a lot more waste than Maldivians, and though many resorts have made a great effort to recycle, compost and generally reduce waste on their islands, the tourism industry is unfortunately responsible for a lot of the waste that ends up in Thilafushi. Don’t get me wrong: tourism has undoubtedly been good for the Maldives, accounting for over 30% of GDP[1]. But over 1 million tourists per year takes a toll on the country – with it as a “luxury destination” that often means tourists who want the best of the best, without considering what the environmental impact might be. It is on everyone’s shoulders to make sure that waste starts to be properly managed in the Maldives.


A new shipment arrives to the island


“Fresh” trash newly arrived to the edge of the island, presumably waiting pick up to be brought to the main landfill area


Trash being loaded onto a truck to be transported to main landfill area



There are so many issues with this island, starting with the obvious environmental disasters:

  • The waste is burnt (not incinerated, a process that is a high-temperature waste treatment system to convert the waste into ash, flue gas and heat, making it much more compacted/easier to handle). This releases toxic fumes into the atmosphere and contribute to air pollution.


Burning waste

  • The huge mass of waste and the fact that Thilafushi sits only 2 metres above sea level leads to concerns that the toxic waste will leach into the seawater.


  • Human health impacts: after just 2 hours in the island (with a mask on) I felt dizzy and had a headache. I can only imagine the long-term health impacts of the men who work there without any safety equipment or protective gear.


  • Any more that you guys can think of?

Better management of trash in the Maldives should start with segregation of waste and improved infrastructure at the local island level: if local islands could deal with all their waste “in-house”, so to speak, that would hopefully eliminate the need for shipments to Thilafushi. This starts with awareness-raising through education, and, crucially, funding for the proper equipment e.g. crushers, bailers, incinerators, etc.

The next step is to drastically change behaviour to cut down on the amount of single-use plastics that are even ending up in the system: this includes changing habits (again, through education) as well as discussing with companies to improve and change packaging to create “smarter” and less wasteful packaging. We cannot solve this problem unless we wean ourselves off of single-use plastic, or any other item that you use once and then get rid of.


Plastic bottle mountain…

One last view of Rubbish Island..



Please let me know what you think about Rubbish Island in the comments below, and what you think are solutions for the Maldives.

[1] Maldives Economy Profile 2014

p.s. Feel free to use/share the photos, but please do credit me – Alexis McGivern. Thank you, and thanks for reading!

  • Trevor Larkum
    Posted at 12:53h, 11 May Reply

    That is tragically sad – but is surely repeated all around the world.

    • Alexis McGivern
      Posted at 13:00h, 11 May Reply

      Hi Trevor, thank you so much for your comment! Absolutely true, and this is actually something I should have mentioned in my post above. This issue is not at all unique to the Maldives, it’s just that now that I am living here I am really focused on these problems. This is a practice that is sadly common in many developing countries due to a number of factors, including poverty, lack of government coordination and often corruption of government funding for correct waste management. A sad reality…

  • Floriana
    Posted at 20:46h, 11 May Reply

    Disgusting! And even more dramatic considering that this poor waste management is gradually harming the beauty of these places and ultimately the tourism sector on which these populations rely on…

    • Alexis McGivern
      Posted at 04:24h, 12 May Reply

      Hey Floriana! Absolutely agree – it is really difficult, because in the long-term this will turn off tourists to visiting the islands around this area. Very sad..

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