New York-based NGO Parley for the Oceans has gained a reputation for collaborations with international brands to use plastic reclaimed from the Ocean to produce shoes, sunglasses or bags. In the Maldives, its role goes much further, being responsible for an extensive environmental education program in schools across the country as well as taking charge of the growing amounts of segregated plastic it processes and exports for recycling in Taiwan.
Can the Maldives become a zero-waste country as some political leaders and organizations suggest?
There is a lot to be done before that could be considered as a realistic outcome. Stating that burning waste to produce power is “zero-waste” is misleading. Co-incineration is not an environmentally friendly solution in itself. Furthermore, there is a considerable amount of waste produced in the Maldives that is not accounted for in official statistics. The drive for sustainability needs to start at home. People are not aware of just how much plastic they use, and with more tourists than locals coming to the Maldives every year, education becomes even more challenging. Today, tourists actually produce more waste than Maldivians. The sustainability laws are outdated and need to be revamped. I would say that today more than 200 metric tons of garbage, mostly food waste, is dumped in the ocean every day in the Maldives. Only when these issues are addressed with efficient solutions can we start contemplating moving towards a zero-waste society.
We have so much support from the international community that could help us establish small processing centers in every island, rather than a centralized system. If we had a wood shredder, a food digester, and a recycling storage point in every island, we would bypass the need for daily transport of waste to Thilafushi and save considerable resources.
How is Parley addressing the need for education regarding environmental sustainability?
Our education program spans on several levels. We do reef education, where we try to bring children closer to the ocean and make them understand the impact of human pollution. We have a plastic segregation program in over 75 schools across the Maldives, which we collect and export for recycling in Taiwan. We are also collaborating with nearly 40 resorts, collecting plastic and promoting consumption reduction. Unfortunately, in the resorts, most of the efforts are made in “front of the house”, where tourists are located. However, there are more staff than visitors, and many times these same plastic reduction policies are not followed in the “back of the house”, where the staff stays. We do many training and education programs with resort staff. It is not just about the processes themselves, but also a matter of mentality that will teach people that it is wrong to throw cigarette buds or garbage in the ocean. When these people move out of the resorts, they can also share that message in their home islands.
We are also addressing the corporate world, particularly the construction sector, which has a lot of staff and consumes a lot of materials that create loads of waste. We are trying to tackle the issue on every front. In time, I want also to have education programs for the tourists, so we can also export environmental consciousness.
What needs to change regarding the country’s environmental regulation?
There is much to be addressed, but we are particularly focused on lobbying for new regulation regarding packaging laws.
We need to set up import policies that promote sustainable packaging. It doesn’t have to happen overnight. We can set up a progressive plan with a ten-year target to phase out non-sustainable packaging. With the right promotion incentives, this should not be difficult to do. We have spoken to suppliers, and they have confirmed the willingness to change the packaging of their products since the market is big enough to justify the cost. It’s a matter of making the importers shift gears on their standards. That will have to come from social demand, which in turn needs to be promoted by education and social leadership.
However, the issue is not just imports, but also local production. There is a policy from the ministry of health that states that food needs to be packed in plastic for health reasons. So even if a producer wants to use food grade paper to package the food, they would have to package that paper in plastic. So it is necessary to review some of the legal rules to adapt them to more sustainable solutions.