Vulnerability to rising sea levels led the Maldivian government to develop a plan to achieve carbon neutrality that includes a call for widespread adoption of composting.
BioCycle October 2012, Vol. 53, No. 10, p. 49
The Maldives is one of the world’s most beautiful countries: 1,192 small tropical islands with lush vegetation, white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and a marine environment rich in diversity. Its coral reefs are the seventh largest in the world and cover an area of 3,444 square miles.
The country’s natural beauty attracts many tourists. Over the last 10 years, tourism has increased at an average annual rate of 8 percent, or more than 600,000 annually, and accounts for about two-thirds of the Maldivian economy. Early on, the government decided to focus on attracting affluent foreign visitors, as wealthy tourists pay higher hotel rates and higher taxes. Revenue from tourism has reduced poverty by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years; the Maldives has the highest per capita income in South Asia.
But tourism also has had a significant impact on waste generation in the country, increasing along with the economic growth. The Maldives faces significant challenges in managing its wastes, and could threaten its natural beauty.
Malé, the capital city, is the country’s largest, with more than 100,000 residents (one-third of the nation’s population) living on an area of 0.88 square miles. The city is also the main economic center. The remaining population is scattered in small population centers in 200 islands. Malé generates the most wastes — an average of 2.2 lbs/person/day, for total waste generation of over 120 tons/day. All waste generated at the capital must be disposed at a nearby island. Its waste stream is highly organic with small amounts of recyclable materials (Table 1).
Waste Collection, Transfer And Disposal
Malé is an unusual capital city because it lacks municipal waste collection. All waste generators must either bring their own wastes to a transfer station or pay someone to do it for them. Residences, businesses and institutions can sign a contract with a private waste collection service. There are also about 200 informal refuse collectors who, for a fee, pick up wastes. Waste collection companies serve most businesses and institutions, while the informal refuse collectors serve most households.
The informal collectors transport wastes to the transfer station in either bicycles or pushcarts. All collectors are men. On a bicycle, the average weight per load is 33 lbs; with 5 to 7 collection trips per day, an average of 220 lbs are collected. The pushcarts can transport 150 to 220 lbs/trip; those collectors do 2 to 3 trips a day to the transfer station. Most collectors have full-time jobs and collect wastes to augment their income. Their median income from waste collection is $36/month.
The city has one transfer station for industrial wastes and one for municipal wastes. The former receives all construction and demolition debris, as well as scrap and old equipment. At the transfer stations, collected waste is loaded onto large trucks that drive to the ferry terminal, where they are carried by ferry to Thilafushi, an artificial island about 4.3 miles from Malé. Thilafushi, an open dump, is the only waste disposal facility for the capital and surrounding islands. Trucks empty their contents into the ground; the unlined disposal area covers 124 acres, but the surrounding available area is so large that it could be used for waste disposal for 30 more years.
At the disposal area, wastes are put in piles and burned in the open. The smoke from this open burning can be seen from the tall buildings in Malé. However many tourists aren’t exposed to the smoke, as Thilafushi is out of the way of the seaplane routes that go directly to the resort islands.
The disposal site also receives all of the construction and demolition debris from Malé and surrounding islands. Because Malé is a small and crowded island that is not being expanded, the only way to have more space is to build taller buildings. This generates large amounts of debris, which in turn is used to expand the artificial island around Thilafushi. Debris is mixed with the ashes and residues (e.g., glass and metals that were not recovered) left from burning the trash.
Over the years, the dumping grounds have expanded the island. Warehouses and industrial plants have been built on this reclaimed land. Malé municipality owns the island and leases the land. This is a significant source of revenue for the municipality, and provides an incentive for rapid expansion of the reclaimed area. Thus, any activity that diverts waste, such as composting and recycling, would have to demonstrate greater benefits than using all waste for expanding the reclaimed area.
Recycling And Composting Activities
Malé does not have a municipal recycling program, thus recyclables are recovered informally, mostly by local scavengers. Due to limited industrial activities in the Maldives, most recovered recyclables are exported to India, the closest large market. Currently mostly metals and PET are recovered for recycling: 330 to 440 tons/month of ferrous and nonferrous metals, and 33 tons/month of PET. Many informal refuse collectors recover the recyclables before dropping the remaining waste off at the transfer station.
The Maldives is the world’s most vulnerable country to a potentially rising sea level caused by climate change. The country’s islands are flat, with elevations no higher than 6 feet above sea level. A rising sea level could submerge much of the country under water by the end of the century. Even though the country’s emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are very low — less than 15 percent of the average European nation — it could suffer the consequences of others’ actions.
To lead the way for other countries, the Maldivian government announced an ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality within 10 years. The anaerobic decomposition of organic wastes accounts for about 20 percent of the Maldives’ GHG emissions. A plan developed to achieve carbon neutrality calls for widespread adoption of composting of organic wastes to reduce emissions, among other actions. The resulting compost would be used to improve the country’s soil fertility and increase local crop yields. This includes promoting organic agriculture.
The first organic farm in the country, Island Organic Maldives, started operations on Maarikulu, Baa Atoll, in 2007. Because the soil is sandy and low in nutrients, the farm uses a mixture of compost, manure, ash and shredded coconut husks, as well as fish bone meal and seaweed. The farm produces papayas, eggplants, pumpkins, chili peppers, squash and cucumbers, among other vegetables. Organic farming with the use of compost reduces the amount of organic wastes, recycles nutrients, reduces imports and creates jobs for the local population. Over the next few years, public and private composting activities in the country are likely to increase significantly.
Resort Waste Management
Tourists arrive at the international airport near Malé, and then continue on to the resorts aboard seaplanes or boats. There are currently 89 resorts in operation on the same number of islands, scattered throughout the country. Each resort occupies an island, and it must build its own power plant, desalination plant, wastewater facilities and manage its solid waste. Some resorts have their waste transported to Thilafushi but due to the distance from some islands and the cost of transport, some resorts allegedly dump their wastes at sea or simply burn them.
However, some resorts have taken significant steps to reduce their ecological impact. The Soneva Fushi Resort, for example, has the goal of becoming carbon neutral. It has implemented an integrated waste management plan that includes reducing waste generation by purchasing supplies with minimal packaging, donating all Styrofoam to a fish factory, and sending all e-waste back to the manufacturer in Thailand. Resort guests are asked to take back all batteries and potentially hazardous items to their countries of origin. Guests are also provided with refillable water bottles when they arrive at the resort in order to reduce plastic waste. The resort composts about 1.5 tons/day of food waste, paper, cardboard, waste wood and sawdust on site. A vegetable garden uses the compost to grow some of the food consumed by the guests. Glass is crushed and used in construction on the islands. In total, Soneva Fushi Resort sends slightly under 4 tons/day — about 7 percent of the 57 tons/day of waste generated — for final disposal.
Martin Medina is a waste management consultant for various international organizations, including the World Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank and the United Nations. The author expresses his gratitude to the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Water of the Maldives, Malé municipality, Coca Cola of the Maldives and the Soneva Fushi Resort.