The Maldives is becoming engulfed with microplastics

8 Agustus 2020

‘The Maldives is widely seen as a veritable beach paradise on earth with its picturesque azure blue waters. Yet lurking beneath the surface (literally) is a threat largely invisible to the naked eye: microplastics.

Waters around the islands contain some of the highest levels of microplastic pollution on the planet, say Australian marine scientists. They warn that the accumulation of plastic particles in local waters could severely impact marine life in shallow reefs and threaten the livelihoods of local communities who depend primarily on tourism and fishing.

The experts from Flinders University in Adelaide examined the levels of plastic pollution present in sand across 22 sites off the coast of Naifaru, the most populous island in Lhaviyani Atoll, an administrative division of the Maldives. The tiny pollutants are highly concentrated in waters around Naifaru and are ubiquitous elsewhere too in local waters.

“Our findings show microplastics are ubiquitous in marine sediments around a remote coral island, at sizes ingestible by marine organisms, raising concerns about potential effects of microplastic ingestion by coral reef species,” the scientists explain in a study.

Specifically, the concentration of microplastics at Naifaru is between 55 and 1127.5 microplastics per kilogram, which far exceeds the rate documented at Tamil Nadu in India (3-611 microplastics/kg). A similar concentration was observed on islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, elsewhere in the Maldives (197-822 particles/kg).

Worse: most of the microplastics at the islands are less than 0.4mm in width, which is small enough for both people and various marine organisms living at shallow coral reefs to ingest them accidentally. The health and environmental consequences could well become dire as a result. The marine scientists are currently examining fish dwelling in shallow waters at reefs to see how many microplastics they swallow.

It is no mystery where much of the microplastic pollution in the Maldives originates: it is brought to the islands by ocean currents in the Indian Ocean from some of the world’s worst plastic polluters such as India.

Yet the Maldives’s own poor waste management is also to blame. Much of the locally generated waste has simply been dumped on small uninhabited islands that serve as landfills. Already a decade ago an artificial isle dubbed Rubbish Island was already overflowing with waste, mostly generated by luxury hotels operating nearby.

“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% increase of waste generated per capita on local islands in the last decade,” says Prof. Karen Burke Da Silva, an author of the new study.

“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 expert adds.

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