The white sacks are neatly lined at the harbour in Kaafu Atoll Guraidhoo. Like the people milling about waiting for their boat, the sacks are also waiting to be picked up. Further inland identical sacks are lined in the school compound. The sacks filled with plastic bottles with ‘Parley’ emblazoned on their sides are a familiar scene around the Maldives now.
Plastic that years ago would have littered the beaches and polluted the sea now gets collected, sorted and shipped abroad to find a new lease of life as designer wear.
Since launching around two and a half years ago, environmental NGO Parley for the Oceans has found willing partners in local communities. “We have partnered with 64 islands and around 76 schools to collect plastic,” says Shaahina Ali, managing director of Parley Maldives.
The premise is simple: an island has to place a call to Parley to say they want to participate in the Parley AIR (avoid, intercept, Redesign) pledge to reduce their plastic usage, recycle and support the creation of new materials and methods.
The logistics of managing this can be difficult in a country three times the size of the UK with islands scattered far and wide. Community participation at every turn is what makes the project a success
“We first go and do a presentation in the island school for the kids and parents,” says Ali. To get the younger generation more invested in the marine environment, Parley teams up with local guest houses “we take the entire school snorkelling,” says Ali adding that they also take the parents.
“Its not enough just to sign an agreement, we need to get personally involved and protect the oceans for the future. We are people of the ocean but we have never really felt the ocean. We have taken it for granted. Curriculum change, collection change, and behaviour change are all vitally important.”
Parley has taken over 100,000 youth and parents snorkelling and for a lot of them it was their first time seeing the marine environment. Traditionally Maldivians used the sea mostly for swimming and playing. Diving as a sport has also been gaining popularity among Maldivians in recent years.
Over weeks and months, the children then collect the plastic bottles and fill the sacks with it, which is shipped to Thilafushi or Parley Center in Malé, where its sorted and compacted and sent abroad.
The logistics of sending the plastics to the Parley stations are either handled by the island council or Parley. “For this to work properly we need that one passionate partner to drive the project in the school,” says Ali, who notes that some schools have a reward-based system like Ghiyasudeen school, which was one of the first to sign up to the Parley pledge. Other schools organise collective beach clean-ups and other activities or hold competitions to see which group brings the most plastic. Parley keeps a log of how many items are collected from different islands and groups and a Viber group connects them all.
Successes and challenges
Parley isn’t sure if the consumption of single-use plastics in the Maldives is going up or down. “We haven’t monitored the load that closely yet,” Ali says. “But Islands that have worked with us longer, like Fulidhoo and Keyodhoo in Vaavu Atoll you wouldn’t find plastics thrown away on the beach.”
Ahmed Yusuf, president of the Keyodhoo island council, agrees. “People will no longer throw away any plastics, if they see one they will pick it up immediately and bring it to the collection point,” he says.
Yusuf has observed an attitude change towards plastic and littering since they started the programme two years ago. “Now parents would go for early morning walks with children on weekends and collect any litter on the beach,” he says. Keyodhoo collects around 40 sacks of plastics monthly and sends it to Parley.
But the council president admits there is still a long way to go in reducing plastic use, but says the island is transitioning at the moment. “We are looking to get water filters, so that we can filter rain water and drink it, and we are in the process of phasing out plastic bags. The council has pro actively collected re-usable bags from companies like Dhiraagu and distributed it to every household in the island. “Each person in the household gets a bag.” Plastic shops are not given away for free in Keyodhoo shops anymore.
Phasing out usage of plastic is a priority for Parley. “We don’t want to be a collection centre forever. When we give presentation to the parents we talk about finding alternatives to plastic. We ask them to consider buying wooden hangers, and wooden pegs next time they buy those, or to invest in glass and stainless steel items in kitchenware. For us this is not just a health issue its an environmental one also” says Ali.
In a sign of changing attitudes, Ali says in the run up to Ramadan she received texts from some islanders about how they had not bought any plastic items at all. Pre-Ramadan is a time where Maldivian households do spring cleaning and invest in new items.
Apart from Polyethylene Terephthalate or PET, the most commonly used and easiest material to recycle, Parley also collects plastic types 2 and 5 found in household items.
Plastic 2 is HDPE a stiff plastic used in making milk jugs, detergent, lotion bottles, toys, plastic bags, considered a safe form of plastic, its also easy to recycle for secondary use as its considered relatively simple and cost effective to do so.
Plastic five is Polypropylene plastic, a tough lightweight plastic, heat resistant that is commonly used for plastic bottle tops, margarine and yoghurt containers, straws, packing tape, rope and things like potato chip bags.
These recycled material find its way into t-shirts, shoes and even sunglasses. Adidas is just one of the brands Parley works with, in 2018 the designer fashion portal Net-a-Porter took the Parley pledge and did a photo shoot for their magazine Porter in the Maldives. They also participated in a beach cleanup while they were in the Maldives.
“Parley won’t even announce a brand collaboration until the brand commits to phasing out virgin plastics.” says Ali. She says brands like Adidas values the product, as it’s a more ethically correct product and uses less fossil fuel then virgin plastics.
There are uphill battles still. “We work with a lot of challenges, we are not doing as much as we would like to” says Ali. Some days Parley has to abandon working on their station in Thilafushi because of the smoke, other times they have to pause work at their station in Malé.
“There is still little differentiating between waste management and recycling, sometimes neighbours do complain about the trucks that bring the plastic,” says Ali.
The President’s Office, with a degree of fanfare, recently discontinued single-use plastic bottles. A handful of ministries and state run companies immediately followed suit. Prominent local politicians and businessmen are starting to speak out against single-use plastics. Is the tide finally turning on the plastics issue?
Ali thinks so. Even though consumption of bottled water is still rampant in the Maldives, Ali says, “More and more people are sending plastic for recycling, and there are some trendy café’s serving table water now. Its much better with this government, we hope to be involved on a national level in policy also.”
It remains to be seen how long it would take Maldives to get on top of its plastic wastage problem, but when it does, Parley would have earned its place as one of the pivotal players of the movement.