For World Environment Day, UNDP’s Ahmed Shifaz writes about how plastic is drowning the ocean and beaches of Maldives and what we can do about it.

INDIVIDUAL ACTION, COLLECTIVE RESULT

It’s amazing how accustomed we have gotten to the sight of our beaches covered in plastic trash. It’s as if we have accepted that’s the way things are and will be. In a world that is increasingly drowning in its own waste, some of the statistics around plastic are staggering. And most of it winds up in our oceans. 13 million tonnes of the stuff are thrown into the sea each year. That is equivalent to dumping one garbage truck load into the ocean every minute.

Maldives imports everything, including plastic. Most often plastic comes into the country as a raw material to cater to Maldivian dependence on PET bottles. It also comes as packaging wrapped around the goods that we buy, and as single-use plastic bags.

And at the end of its use, it simply becomes waste and very little of it (if any) leaves the country. Worse still, they accumulate on our tiny islands. So much so that our islands’ topography now include growing hills made of PET bottles and assorted plastic. Without proper waste management practices most of this ends up in our ocean.

I remember going swimming with my father when I was a child. We’d swim and snorkel around the capital island Male’ and sometimes other islands. The waters around Male’ unlike other islands weren’t necessarily the most pristine, but there was one distinct difference between then and now: The amount of plastic floating around and tangled up on the house reefs.

Today, all of our lagoons and reefs are suffocating. This is posing real threats to marine animals and their ecosystems. Majestic sea animals such as turtles and whale sharks are being caught in discarded fishing nets. Entire reefs lie under ghostly layers of plastic bags. With much of our country made up of the ocean, plastic is an immediate threat to the reefs that sustain our economy and industry. So then the question all of us need to ask ourselves is, is this OK? Are we going to accept this simply as the way things are? The answer must be a resounding NO. We are at a unique point where we are able to recognize the harm that we are causing, as well as have the means to do something about it.

As the problem grows, cities and countries across the world are making bold decisions to ban single-use plastic such as shopping bags, cups and straws. In the Maldives, UNDP supported to build several waste management centers in Laamu Atoll, where communities have been equipped with waste management facilities, including plastic chippers. The aim is to reduce the plastic footprint on the islands, and help prevent things like plastic bottles being thrown into the sea.

As an individual there’s a lot we can do to reduce plastics simply by changing our consumption patterns. We can start by becoming responsible consumers. Change isn’t always easy. I have recently been trying to reduce my use of plastic bags on my weekly grocery and home supplies shopping rounds. I used to haul back at least 20 individual large bags on these trips. I decided to change this and invested in large reusable bags and a collapsible trolley for heavier items. It took me a few weeks to get used to it and the first few times, the cashier would look at me confused, unsure of how to pack different types of things into one bag. It is safe to say that I definitely held up the line the first few weeks. But things have turned around now and the cashiers recognize and actually help me pack away my groceries into my bags. I no longer accept small plastic bags and insist on hand carrying my purchases or load up by pockets. My next project is to ditch single use plastic water bottles. I hope to install a home water filter in my apartment.

Transitioning away from plastic could be challenging. And I know for me it definitely takes some getting used to. But like with the cashier at my local shop, it took us a few weeks but now we have a good system. I believe small steps, over time, can lead to big changes. And if enough people get behind it, together big changes can even happen very quickly. Every individual has the potential and power to reduce the use of plastic in our everyday lives. Especially single-use items that make up the bulk of the plastic that is killing our beautiful oceans.

Photo by Laura Hill. If you would like to learn more about how you can work with UNDP to support communities and jointly take Climate Actions, please follow link http://www.makemyisland.mv