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FEATURE STORYJuly 27, 2022

Maldives Is Turning Waste to Wealth, Energizing Youth, to Safeguard its Future


  • Poorly managed plastic waste is threatening the marine ecosystem and economy of the Maldives, with over 860 metric tons of waste—the majority plastic—generated daily.
  • The government has adopted a waste to wealth approach, shifting from a linear “use and dispose” system of waste management to a circular economy.
  • Two World Bank-financed projects, also supported by PROBLUE, have been helping the Maldives develop a sustainable waste management system, build capacity, and teach youth to lay the groundwork for a cleaner and safer Maldives.

For the idyllic islands of the Maldives, the ocean is a matter of life and death. The crystalline blue waters hold the reins of its economy driven by tourism and fisheries. Yet, its 26 Atolls and almost 1,200 coral islands that sit less than one meter above sea level are under the constant threat of being submerged by rising waters induced by climate change. But this island nation has another nemesis—poorly managed waste—from its own turf as well as the plastics and debris the tides bring in.

Most of the 860 metric tons of waste—the majority plastic—generated daily in the Maldives is burned out in the open, as landfills are not possible in a nation that is 99% water. The toxic smoke creates carbon emissions and public health hazards for half a million Maldivians, and microplastics creep into the bellies of marine life, contaminating food sources and damaging its coral reefs and maritime economy.

For the Maldives, adopting sustainable waste management practices is not an option, it is an imperative. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic when its GDP sank by 16%, building back better for this tourism-propelled nation hinges on safeguarding its precious natural resources. Ninety percent of tax revenues for the island nation come from private hotels hosting an annual inflow of 1.5 million visitors.

Turning the Tide of Waste into Wealth

Determined not to let waste sink its economy, Maldives is not giving up. It is shifting from a linear “use and dispose” system of waste management to a circular economy to ensure a green, sustainable future.

The government has embedded this waste to wealth approach in its national Strategic Action Plan (SAP), and two World Bank-financed projects, also supported by PROBLUE—the Maldives Clean Environment Project (MCEP) and the Maldives Enhancing Employability and Resilience of Youth (MEERY) Project—have been helping the government develop a sustainable waste management system, build capacity, and teach youth to lay the groundwork for a cleaner and safer Maldives.

Residents of Maldives annually clean up beaches and the island of plastic bottles and other trash.

Residents of Maldives annually clean up beaches and the island of plastic bottles and other trash: around 280,000 plastic bottles are used and discarded daily in the capital city of Malé alone, severely threatening the nation's marine ecosystem and economy. Poorly managed plastic waste is expediting the sinking of the nation, which is 99% water with no landfills, standing at only 1.5 feet above sea level.

Photoestetica /

Fighting and Befriending Waste: How It’s Done

Develop waste management facilities: Several development partners, including the World Bank, have been supporting investments in the Maldives to develop inhabited island waste and resource management centers and regional waste processing facilities such as the Vandhoo Regional Facility in the north, to manage its waste in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner. The government has pivoted recently to introduce more decentralized atoll-level waste management strategies that will help strengthen coordination and efficiencies at the local levels and increase local processing of waste to reduce reliance on central facilities, thereby also saving transportation costs.

Strengthen national policy:
Starting June 1, 2022, the government banned the production, import, and consumption of a first group of single-use plastics. This policy has been informed by a series of World Bank-funded pilot initiatives conducted in conjunction with local NGOs to increase awareness of marine litter and incentivize citizens to use alternatives to single-use plastics.

Citizens are overall optimistic about this policy. Noted Maldivian environmental activist Shaahina Ali says, “For me, this first step of phasing out plastics from the Maldives, although a very small one, is a very bold and positive one.” Ali works for Parley for the Oceans, also a World Bank partner that has helped organized numerous beach cleanups and awareness-raising events with school children and adults. Ali exclaims with characteristic passion, “I go there to clean up with hope…hope that my grandchildren will see whales in the ocean in their lifetime as I did growing up.

Source segregation of waste: While investing in waste management facilities and banning single-use plastics are important, the segregation of waste at source—now required by law—is this archipelago’s highest priority waste management solution. If there is any silver-bullet approach to focus on, this is the one.  Segregation and pre-processing of individual waste streams at source help reduce the amount of residual trash that requires transportation at high cost.  It also increases the materials that can be recycled and re-used.

World Bank PROBLUE-funded pilot initiatives led by the Maldives Arts and Crafts Society (MACCS), Parley for the Oceans, and another local NGO, Zero Waste Maldives, promoted household kitchen gardening and composting training across all atolls to stimulate source separation of waste. The workshops were community based and have inspired passion and a sense of unity from participants:

“Let’s show public spaces as pleasant places for visitors.”

“No one else is going to come to clean our island. It is up to us to keep it clean.”

Developing new business models: The NGOs are also actively promoting the re-use and recycling of waste, creating building blocks for behavior change and business models for the community. MACCS brought local women together to make reusable bags from used garments, and subsequently incentivize local businesses to replace plastic bags with cloth ones and reward customers who use them repeatedly. Also, since women play a significant role in the waste management hierarchy in the Maldives—they oversee household shopping and waste disposal—engaging, informing, and empowering women on waste management can bring solutions and major shift in attitudes on the islands.

The good news is that the potential to use waste for more productive purposes is largely untapped, so there is tremendous room for improvement, forward thinking, and innovation in the waste to wealth management approach in the Maldives,” explains Karin Shepardson, World Bank Task Team Leader for MCEP.

Forge public-private partnerships: For a nation known for its “one island, one resort” concept, public-private partnerships with resorts located within the same atoll and sharing the same protected waters, is key to the success of sustainable waste management. The Maldives has experienced resounding success with the Namoona Baa initiative launched by the Maldivian resort, Soneva Fushi, in partnership with a group of 11 neighboring Islands to pledge to end the open burning of island waste and shift towards eco-friendly waste management.  In December 2021 alone, of the more than 4,700 compressed packages of waste from these islands weighing 63,000 kilograms, an impressive 87 percent was “treatable waste” that could either be handled on the island itself by composting organic waste or transported elsewhere for recycling.

Plastic bottles discarded in Maldives beach

While the Maldives is a paradise for tourists, excessive plastics use—more than 280,000 plastic bottles a day and most from tourists—is expediting the sinking of this island nation, which stands only 3.5 feet above sea level. The government is proactively turning its waste to wealth with help from international NGOs.

Flystock /

The Future of Progress Is Youth

When it comes to building the future of a nation, there’s no bigger asset than youth, especially for the Maldives, where more than 40% of the population is between ages 18-34, the youngest in South Asia. While MCEP continues to help introduce waste management infrastructure, build capacity and promote behavior change, the MEERY project has its eye on the future: how the Maldives can benefit better from the demographic dividend of its youth, especially while taking up jobs that will safeguard the future of the nation?

Partnering with area universities, both MCEP and MEERY projects are helping to strengthen waste-related curricula for supervisory and policy professionals, as well as essential vocational skills and training for youth just entering the job market. Both projects will help develop a new cadre of green jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities geared to boost the Maldivian economy.  The MERRY team is also poised to deliver a “Waste to Wealth” certificate course currently being piloted across islands, targeting island residents who can play a critical role in waste management. These efforts are especially timely considering the COVID-19 pandemic, when many Maldivians lost jobs and need help re-entering the workforce.

We are helping the Maldives develop a skilling nation for lifelong learning on how to turn waste to wealth—where skilling, reskilling, and upskilling are seen as a regular feature in the path towards enhancing the environment and establishing economic prosperity,” says Shobhana Sosale, World Bank Task Team Leader for MEERY.

These collective efforts will hopefully keep this stunning nation afloat. Perhaps, it may even enable Shaahina’s grandchildren along with thousands of youths across the Maldives continue to see whales in their pristine—and plastics-free—waters.


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