Waste Watch: News from the U.S. and the Maldives

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

A depressing email popped into my in-box last week, containing a photograph of a rubbish-choked Maafushi harbor. I know the place well, having visited at least four times and completed months of diving training there.

Maafushi is an island in the Maldives, where ‘local tourism’ is allowed. In a 2016 piece for the Dubai newspaper, The National, in Paradise done cheap: visit the Maldives without breaking the bank, I wrote:

Long a favoured destination for honeymooners and high rollers, the ­Maldives is seeking to broaden its appeal. Once upon a time, government policy sequestered luxury tourists on separate dedicated islands, away from the local population. This is changing, as a result of then president Mohamed Nasheed’s 2008 decision to open “local islands” to tourism.

“Since Nasheed’s reforms, there’s been an explosion of small- to medium-sized developments owned and operated by Maldivians,” says ­Sharafuzzaman Anees, the operator of Shark ­Diving School on the centrally located Maafushi Island. These new hotels, restaurants and ancillary businesses cater to budget and middle-market tourists. “On some islands, local tourism is thriving.”

Now, tourists can interact with ordinary Maldivians, sample local culture, and enjoy the balmy climate, pristine beaches, and access to marine life for which the archipelago is justly celebrated – at a fraction of the cost of luxury resorts.

I found the picture of the garbage-strewn harbor depressing, as I’d previously written about my friend Renee Sorensen’s successful efforts to clean up Maafushi in Dengue on My Mind: Spending on ‘Diseases of Poverty’ Not Enough to Create Effective Vaccines. Renee was an ex-pat Norwegian, who moved to Maafushi to dive, and eventually launched two businesses. there

In the spring of 2018, she caught dengue fever and despite being fit, healthy, and only in her forties, died.

In my post, I discussed Renee’s can-do approach to Maafushi’s rubbish problems, an outgrowth of her second business, an echo-diving operation:

…which in addition to promoting more ecologically responsible diving, launched efforts to clean up and preserve beach and reef systems, and especially, to involve local children and teach them to understand and appreciate the environment in which they live.

I include a short, inspiring video, in Norwegian with English sub-titles, for those readers who might be interested in how one woman, along with friends, the community,  colleagues, and visitors, has worked to institute better waste management practices to deal with the spike in garbage that has accompanied the spread of local tourism on Maafushi and surrounding islands. Much of this waste was either being burnt or dumped into the lagoon.

But to Renee, “the thing is that this is very easy to fix.” She knew that “In Norway we are managing the garbage well, and we are very lucky to have sorting facilities and recycling.”

Rather than despairing at the threats to the island she had made her home– waste, plastic, and reef destruction caused by global warming and a tsunami– Renee focused instead on solutions, enlisting locals and visitors alike to fix these problems.

So that picture of a rubbish-choked harbor hit me hard. The last time I was in Maafushi, in July 2019, the harbor was relatively free of trash, the reefs I dived were clear of debris, and the walls outside of the local schoolhouse were decorated with anti-plastic murals.

Yet it seems that Renee’s clean-up initiative is yet another causualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. With about a third of Maldivean GDP comes from tourism, and decline in tourism  due to the pandemic has hit these atolls particularly hard.

According to the Undercurrent (non-subscriber) newsletter:

One of our contacts in the Maldives reports that the island of Maafushi, famous for local tourism, has been inundated with garbage during the decline in tourism caused by the pandemic. He says a lot of the islands are becoming like this, having no proper garbage disposal plan. So, they are simply dumping their rubbish, plastic and all, into the once-pristine sea. Tourists are charged a Green Tax, but little of that money appears to be directed to solving the problem. It’s a crisis that’s destroying the environment.

The newsletter included the picture of Maafushi harbor that sparked this post.

US EPR Panacea?

Yet the Maldives are far from unique in seeing a COVID-19 impact on its waste disposal systems, and a consequent buildup of plastic waste. Bali has also suffered, as Raw Story reports in Bali’s ‘trash heroes’ are cleaning up paradise, one beach at a time. And these problems are not just confined to tourist meccas. Heading west from the Maldives, past the mid-east, through the Mediterranean, and eventually across the Atlantic, we find the US confronting its own rubbish problems, with many U.S. towns and cities seeing strain on their waste disposal systems, including cancellation or curtailment of recycling operations.

Here what seems to be an optimistic piece in the Waste Dive industry publication, 2021 could be year for packaging EPR, nearly a dozen state bills in play, also caught my eye:

Groups who want to shift recycling costs away from taxpayers and onto product packaging producers are racing to be the first to pass extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws this year.

Several states have seen unsuccessful bills in the past, but stakeholders predict a combination of pressure from lawmakers, growing public concern about the environment and rising recycling costs could make 2021 the year at least one state passes the nation’s first EPR policy for packaging.

Although the bills in each state differ, most are designed to hold packaging producers, especially those behind single-use or hard-to-recycle plastics, accountable for the costs associated with managing their material in the waste and recycling stream.

Now, what’s to find fault with here? Especially as many European countries, Canada, and more recently, some Asian and South American countries, have successfully implemented EPR regimes. In fact, some  U.S. states already have in place such systems for products including batteries, carpet, mattresses, paint, and pharmaceuticals, according to Waste Dive, although to-date, not for packaging. And to quote Renee again:

“the thing is that this is very easy to fix.” She knew that “In Norway we are managing the garbage well, and we are very lucky to have sorting facilities and recycling.”

The Waste Dive article provides a comprehensive summary of various state EPR packaging initiatives, with legislation pending in California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Washington, or expected in Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

The problem I have with the state framing of the issue as reported by Waste Dive is two-fold. One is the emphasis on recycling, to the exclusion of outright waste reduction. The second is the emphasis on a too-good-to-be-true shift of responsibility of the state and municipal costs of waste management for packaging to the makers of these packaging materials, arriving at a time when the COVID pandemic has severely strained state and municipal budgets, not only for recycling and waste management, but also for other public services.

Now, as someone whose adult life has coincided with the rise of neoliberalism – and its reliance on panaceas such as privatization to public problems,  I know that efforts to impose EPR depend on monitoring and enforcement to be effective. Absent those safeguards, the burden is only ostensibly shifted to private companies free to disregard their responsibilities.

And those same public budgets that can no longer afford their recycling initiatives I’m pretty sure are not going to stretch to develop effective monitoring and enforcement of EPR packaging regimes. So while I hope I’m wrong, I fear EPR is the panacea du Jour, rolled out to replace the last panacea, our old friend, the recycling fairy, who I mention yet didn’t put much of a dent in the mountain of plastics waste the U.S. produces (see among many posts I’ve written emphasising this point, Plastics Watch: Recycling, Raccoons, and Rubbish).

The EPR initiatives discussed here involve packaging and I suggest outright bans might prove more effective, as many other jurisdictions have started to do. Plastic is simply not necessary for most packaging uses; we could revert to using other forms of packaging, which while not free of disposal problems, do not impose the same long-term environmental burdens as do plastics.

EPR for packaging may very well prove to be an important part of future waste management policies. But these have to be tightly drawn, so as not to be yet another example of the privatization sleight of hand, which while purporting to shift accountability, responsibility, or costs from public scrutiny and control to some private actor, does no such thing when the private actor elects to shirk that responsibility, knowing full well there will be no consequences.

Waste management is very much on the state public policy agenda. At the federal level, discussions centre on the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. EPR is a prominent part of the mix at both these levels, but requires meaningful monitoring and enforcement to be effective.

Alas, those safeguards I just do not think we shall see.



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  1. Steven B Kurtz

    A major reason that Norway has handled its waste problem well is scale. The population is small and mainly homogeneous. That means common values predominate, and the flow isn’t daunting.

    1. a different chris

      >nd mainly homogeneous.

      No. Every individual from every culture in the world knows you don’t s(family blog)t where you eat. When a community provides easily accessible resources to provide just that service, said resources get used. Regardless of which church, if any, they go to on Sunday.

  2. a different chris

    Oh god Norway yet again! Will no one rid us of this troublesome country? Maybe the rest of us should just be exterminated and they can repopulate the planet much more sensibly.

    On a more serious note: So sad about your friend. Sounds like Ms. Sorensen was important, and a friend, to many of us who didn’t even know she existed.

  3. hickory nut

    I’m curious how you’d structure the program if you could wave a wand and make it so. Would you add a tax to all plastic-packing and use that to fully fund gov’t programs to deal with the waste? That would give producers responsibility to fund the programs without depending on them to execute.

    The underlying trouble is that plastic is toxic garbage from the moment it’s created. I’d double-tax any plastic items – one to deal with the garbage, the other to fund research efforts into plastic alternatives, including transitioning to doing without.

    I recently researched helping some health centers bulk-purchase PPE, and was amazed at the amount of single-use items they went through. I asked if there were multiple-use options for things like gloves, say with some kind of high-end laundry, and the answer was a strong no. So we either fund a major transition or the toxifying of the world continues.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I wouldn’t focus on PPE. I wouldn’t rely on a tax. And I agree with you, I don’t think the problem starts with disposal, but when the stuff is created.

      I would therefore immediately ban outright single-use plastics for consumers and businesses, including but not limited to packaging plastics, plastic bags, plastic wrapping, zip-loc bags, plastic water bottles, plastic food containers, plastic nappies, etc. Vanuatu has done it, btw.

      At the moment, I’d leave PPE alone. Yes, it’s tremendously wasteful. But given the pandemic, and the lack of alternatives, this is not the time to tackle that problem. Instead, I’d focus on consumer and business use of plastics (e.g. for wrapping and securing things for shipment). Plenty of targets there.

      1. Synoia

        Back to the 50s. All plastic is banned immediately.
        Clear Glass and, steel, newspaper and wood shavings, are the only acceptable packaging materials.

        All our politicians are required to watch The Graduate, and spend all weekends sorting old rubbish tips (Garbage Dumps).

        1. Paul Jurczak

          If our (male) politicians were required to watch The Graduate, they would focus not on the parts you had in mind…

  4. a different chris

    BTW, this explains nothing?

    >, has been inundated with garbage during the decline in tourism caused by the pandemic. He says a lot of the islands are becoming like this, having no proper garbage disposal plan

    I’ve never heard of the absence of tourists causing a garbage problem? I’m thinking that the tour ships packed garbage out for some extra cash? But that’s just a guess.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      During pre-COVID-19 times, tourists visiting Maafushi arrived at the harbor; they formed their first impressions of the place there. That provided plenty of reason for locals not to dump trash in the harbor. With no tourists, that rationale vanished.

      I was shocked to see the photo showing the current state of affairs. I’ve been to Maafushi several times and never seen it like that.

      1. Olivier

        So whenever rich tourists aren’t watching the maldivians (sp?) trash their islands with abandon? That doesn’t say much for them, doesn’t it?

  5. ambrit

    Banning items at the source is the only way to guarantee reductions in waste.
    My pet peeve is the flimsy plastic ‘grocery’ bags used at most larger emporia. As far as I have been able to ascertain, no one ‘recycles’ those bags. They are instant landfill fodder.
    No one has publicized the end stage of the “One Use Disposable Society.” The society itself becomes disposable.
    Eventually, some ‘strongman’ type will come along and institute Draconian punishments for ecologically destructive practices. Anyone up for public pillorying for littering?

  6. Rod

    There is so much ‘opportunity’ to make a real difference–because the problem is so out of control, everywhere.
    “No” is a word that should get a lot more use in the US Agencies(EPA) that have a Regulatory Role.

    I am glad 11 States have pending Legislation, however 11 different plans plays directly to the Plastics Industry’s pleading of ‘confusing and differing regularity requirements impede Progress and and Solutions while incur compliance costs that are unreasonable’ trope. That is my States Boilerplate that allows the Buck to be passed into the future. Meanwhile PA. and other Ohio River Valley States are embracing their Plastic Future through frack gas utilization:


    Externally, One Plan from the EPA, with EPR as it’s heart, for all 50 States(like the Clean Water Act) is the starting point. An Executive Order could get the ball rolling (and Sunrise et al future voters seem to have the Presidents ear).

    Internally (Individual Value of the Environment which sustains ALL of us) is another challenge but as A Different Chris has intuitively stated:

    Every individual from every culture in the world knows you don’t s(family blog)t where you eat

    so that is a Baseline already established just waiting for the right rational system that supports that belief.

    1. Rod

      Personally and Flippantly, to the my last point–I would put a month moratorium on all Trash Collection in the USA. Having to Live with ALL the trash your life creates without the ability to dispose of it would be a Reality Check leading to a massive Attitude Adjustment. (ya, I know, that would be messy and fraught with health hazards—like plastic pollution is already).

      When we are in dire situation we tend to come up with the most innovative solutions.


  7. Carlos Stoll

    The secularist Mohammed Nasheed was elected president of the Maldives in 2008 succeeding the 30-year-long dictatoraship of the Islamist Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In 2012 the Islamists staged a coup against Nasheed and imprisoned him. President Obama immediately recognized the coup régime. Fortunately Nasheed’s party has recovered control of the islands and he is now speaker of parliament, no thanks to Obama. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohamed_Nasheed

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