Maldives has world’s highest level of microplastic pollution, new study finds

The amount of micro plastic pollution in waters around the Maldives, a global tourist destination known for its beautiful coastline, is amongst the highest in the world and has the potential to severely impact marine life in shallow reefs and threaten the livelihoods of island communities, according to a new study.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic waste that measure less than 5 millimetres long, and due to their often microscopic size are considered invisible water pollutants. Small pieces of plastic can break down over time from plastic bottles, textiles and clothing, remain in the world’s oceans.

Marine scientists from Flinders University in Australia recorded the levels of plastic pollution in sand across 22 sites off the coast of Naifaru, the most populous island in Lhaviyani Atoll, to determine how much microplastic is present around the island. Microplastic distribution was found to be ubiquitous in the marine environment, with the results published in Science of the Total Environment journal.

Flinders University Honours student and lead researcher Toby Patti says micro plastics are highly concentrated in waters around Naifaru.

“The concentration of microplastics found on Naifaru in the Maldives (55 -1127.5 microplastics/kg) was greater than those previously found on a highly populated site at Tamil Nadu, India (3 – 611 microplastics/kg), and was a similar concentration to that found on inhabited and uninhabited islands elsewhere in the Maldives (197 -822 particles/kg),” says Patti.

“The majority of micro plastics found in our study were less than 0.4mm in width, so our results raise concerns about the potential for microplastic ingestion by marine organisms in the shallow coral reef system. The accumulation of microplastics is a serious concern for the ecosystem and the local community living off of these marine resources, and can have a negative impact on human health.”

The high levels of microplastics could have been transported by ocean currents from neighbouring countries in the Indian Ocean like India, as well as from Maldivian land reclamation policies, poor sewerage and wastewater systems.

Professor Karen Burke Da Silva says notorious ‘rubbish islands’ used as landfill sites are also contributing to the high concentration of microplastic found around the island.

“Current waste management practices in the Maldives cannot keep up with population growth and the pace of development. The small island nation encounters several challenges regarding waste management systems and has seen a 58 per cent increase of waste generated per capita on local islands in the last decade,” says Professor Burke Da Silva.

“Without a significant increase in waste reduction and rapid improvements in waste management, small island communities will continue to generate high levels of microplastic pollution in marine environments, with potential to negatively impact the health of the ecosystem, marine organisms, and local island communities.”

The researchers are now looking at the stomach content of coral reef fish to see if they have bellies full of microplastics in a follow up study.

Plastic waste is a well-documented issue in the Maldives as well, with ocean plastic regularly washing up on its pristine beaches.

Known internationally as one of the world’s best scuba diving destinations, the Maldives has an abundance of dive sites with a unique underwater beauty to explore. The islands of the Maldives have consistently warm waters with outstanding visibility throughout the year, and consist of exhilarating dive sites such as vibrant thilas, exciting channels, coral-filled overhangs and fascinating wrecks.

Maldives’ world-renowned coral reefs play a fundamental role in food production, shoreline protection, and tourism revenue, but ocean plastic threatens the survival of shallow coral reefs.

Preservation of the reefs has become more important than ever. Preventing plastic pollution is key to the conservation efforts.

Maldivian authorities and the private sector have recently taken encouraging steps to phase out the use of single-use plastics.

A recent amendment to the Import Export Act will see a complete ban on the import of single-use plastics from 2021.

Meanwhile, several resorts have been transitioning to reusable toiletry bottles, biodegradable or eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws and reusable glass water bottles. They have also been collaborating with international organisations like Parley to recycle any leftover plastic.

Cover photo: Parley Maldives

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