THILAFUSHI, Maldives — My family wasn’t very happy. It was Christmas and we had flown halfway around the world to spend a few sunny days relaxing on the beach. But all I wanted to do was visit a local landfill that I was curious about.
I finally talked my family into going by promising that later on we would go snorkeling with exotic fish. Maybe we’d get lucky and see some manta rays or blacktip sharks.
As we headed for the landfill our boat passed by a handful of remarkably idyllic islands. The sea was turquoise blue, the sand a brilliant white. The weather — it had been rainy for weeks — was sunny at last, with a magnificent intensity. A school of dolphins swam alongside our boat for part of the journey.
I spotted two columns of white smoke on the horizon. And there it was: the garbage island of Thilafushi. With the wind blowing at our backs, we couldn’t smell it yet. But as we got closer, we started to see only rusty transport vessels piled high with trash; gone were the luxury tourist yachts.
In the early 1990s, this roughly 4-mile-long island and its beautiful central lagoon became the Maldives’ dumpster. The nation is an archipelago comprised of 1,192 coral islands, with a maximum topographical height of only 2.4 meters above sea level, making it the flattest country on earth. This means that rising sea levels pose a particularly dire threat.
If we do nothing to address the effects of climate change, the future of the Maldives can be measured in decades instead of centuries. The environmental crisis the nation faces is already evident in the bleaching of its breathtaking coral reefs, a result of unusually high ocean temperatures.
The government has pledged to radically reduce its carbon emissions, but that won’t matter if the world’s worst pollution offenders do nothing to change their behavior. The United States, China and the planet’s other top carbon emitters are asphyxiating island nations like the Maldives.
The Maldives’ carbon-reduction efforts are a shining example for how other nations might tackle climate change. Unfortunately, that achievement is sullied by Thilafushi and the mountains of garbage arriving daily from nearby Malé, the nation’s capital, and the dozens of hotels scattered across the archipelago. Estimates from years past have suggested that roughly 300 tons of garbage are dumped on Thilafushi every day
When we finally arrived, the scene on the island was heartbreaking and overwhelming. I saw plastic of all colors, twisted metal, rotten wood, random construction materials, clothes and rags, decaying foodstuffs, various bottles, unidentifiable liquids — and whatever else people tend to throw away without thinking, and without knowing or caring where it will all end up.
In the case of the Maldives, almost everything ends up here at Thilafushi, piled chaotically into endless hills of garbage.
The island grows bigger by the day, creating an ongoing toxic gas issue. Anything that can’t take its place on top of yesterday’s garbage is tossed to the side. There are no barriers to hold the refuse; the island simply vomits into the sea what it can’t contain. Like the endless waves, it never stops. Boats brimming with trash of all kinds use their mechanical arms to push garbage into any space it will fit, like passengers cramming themselves into Mexico City’s overstuffed subway cars before the doors close.
Some may say there’s more order to all this smelly chaos than meets the eye. Regardless, what’s clear is that this island — with its overwhelming stench and never-ending parade of boats — was created to maintain, for tourists and locals alike, the idiotic notion that what we throw away simply vanishes.
The reality, of course, is that garbage never disappears. It’s always hanging around, like a toxic relationship that won’t end.
There are dumping grounds like Thilafushi all over the world, many of them even larger. What’s so extraordinary about this one is that the landfill is located in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and still it keeps getting bigger and bigger, spilling into the sea and onto the surrounding coral. If I were to come back 10 or 20 years from now, the horror would likely be far worse.
What if we had to live with our garbage? What if we had to store it somewhere inside our homes? Some of the cleanest cities I’ve visited — Tokyo, for instance — have very few public waste bins, so that people are forced to carry around their refuse, staying constantly aware of what they are buying and throwing away.
“Let’s go,” I said to our ship’s captain. “I’ve seen enough.”
My family, patient and generous, was able to breathe easy again when we reached the open sea. If you share your life with a journalist, you’ll end up seeing — and smelling — some pretty wild places.
But regardless of who you know or what it is you do, it’s important to visit landfills like Thilafushi and to raise the uncomfortable question of why they exist. Waste management has an absolutely crucial role to play in the fight against climate change. Once we see what really happens with our garbage, we may finally be compelled to save our planet.