UNEP would like to thank the World Resources Institute, Duke University and the University of Strathclyde for their invaluable assistance with the collation of these case-studies.


Plastic Pollution in the Maldives

The Maldives is a Small-Island Developing State (SIDS) made up of roughly 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean, that are spread over 860 km (Fallati et al., 2019). Of the Maldives territory, 98% is ocean, and the remaining 2 percent are islands – presenting a unique solid waste management challenge. Like many other SIDS, a relatively recent rise in population growth, tourism, and demand for imported goods has resulted in an increase of waste. Plastic waste comprises 2% of all waste in the Maldives and threatens marine ecosystems, the tourism industry, and public health (Nashfa, 2016).

Broadly speaking, there are four categories of islands in the Maldives. These are: 1) islands inhabited by local populations; 2) islands with relatively dense urban settlements; 3) uninhabited islands; and 4) resort islands (Malatesta et al., 2015). Because of the diversity of population density and industry across these four categories of islands, plastic pollution and waste management needs challenges vary significantly within the Maldives.

table of management systems

For a number of reasons, including limited freshwater sources and hesitancy towards treated water, PET bottles of drinking water are shipped to inhabited islands regularly. One study, that looked at Magoodhoo, an island within the Faafu Atoll with a population of nearly 800, found that over 6,000 1.5 liter PET bottles are brought from the capital Malé to the island monthly, totaling nearly 75,000 bottles annually. The import of these bottles also contributes to carbon emissions from shipping, and costs the average household nearly $200 USD per year. Freshwater demand on Magoodhoo Island stems from the 2004 tsunami in the Maldives, which damaged Faafu atoll’s freshwater reservoir. Many residents on inhabited islands that do have sufficient access to treated water still prefer imported water in PET bottles. In addition to drinking treated water, some islands also collect rainwater (Acciarri 2021) in order to reduce dependence on PET bottles. Likewise In addition to imports, plastics are also manufactured in the Maldives. At least two facilities are known to produce single-use plastic bags and according to the literature are neither monitored nor regulated, and are exempt from import-relevant regulation as they are manufactured domestically. An example of such regulation is that plastic bags are subject to 400% import duty after June 2021, with plastic bags below 30cm*30cm banned and above this size limit subject to 400% import ban.

Some of the islands in the Maldives “lack a waste segregation system, an efficient collection system to extract recyclables from the general waste stream, and technical infrastructure to recycle.” (Nashfa, 2016) As a result, PET waste is either sent to landfills, incinerated in an open-air burning site or exported to India for recycling. PET waste that does not make it into one of these disposal streams often ends up along shorelines threatening both marine ecosystems and the tourism industry, which makes up a quarter of the country’s GDP.

Uninhabited and remote islands are not immune from plastic pollution, either. On Vavvaru Island, a remote coral islands, use of the islands is restricted to educational and research purposes, and strict waste disposal rules are strongly enforced. Despite this, a 2017 study by Imhof et al, that sampled several location around the island found accumulated macro (> 25 mm), meso (5–25 mm), and micro (1–5 mm) plastics include Styrofoam, foil, and large plastic items.

Because of the small landmass and rising sea levels in Maldives, landfilling is particularly unsuitable (Kapinga and Chung, 2020) waste management option. The only operational landfill for Maldives is on the manmade island, Thilafushi, and the amount of waste generated in the Maldives exceeds its capacity (Shadiya 2016). Experts estimate that 20 hectares of landfill space remain, which will only last another 25 to 30 years, assuming current waste generation rates (Medina, 2012; Peterson, 2013). Thilafushi is also threatened by rising sea levels which may lead to waste from the landfill entering the Indian Ocean.

Currently, the total plastic footprint in the Maldives is about 12 percent of the total waste produced in the country, which is about 43,134 tons per year (Maldives Ocean Plastics Alliance, 2021). However, with the absence of segregation of different types of waste, and systematic plastic waste collection system, 66 percent of these plastic waste are mismanaged (Maldives Ocean Plastics Alliance, 2021). In fact, in 2019, only 0.06% of all plastic used in the Maldives was reported as reused or recycled in 2019, and 189 tonnes were exported, presumably for recycling (Moosa, 2021). Such low percentage might also be the result of lack of data on many types and end results of waste in the most recent report. Waste that is transported for export for recycling is often transported in uncovered barges, and may enter the marine environment that way as well (Kapmeier and Gonsalves, 2018). Though technically prohibited, incineration of plastics is commonly carried out in some islands, which releases noxious substances and threatens public health, air quality, and the tourism industry. As of 2016, some 14% of plastic waste was incinerated across the Maldives. Public littering is also an issue on inhabited islands such as Hulhumale, where the Waste Management Corporation Organisation (WAMCO) invests a lot of money on litter cleanup of single-use plastics.

In addition to threatening the tourism industry, degrading air quality, and harming marine ecosystems, mismanaged waste in the Maldives contributes to the risk and spread of Dengue fever. During rainy seasons, sitting water in bottles, cans, tires and plastic bags that have entered the environment facilitate breeding for mosquitos that can spread Dengue (Shadiya 2016).

Maldives Legislation to Address Plastic Pollution

Export-Import Act of Maldives (Act No. 31/79)

Import Tax on Non-degradable Plastic Bags

In 2012, the government imposed levies on producers, importers, and distributors of plastic bags, which has led to a reduction in the use of bags (Chasse, 2018). The import of non-biodegradable plastic bags of more than 30*30 cm long and bags over 50 micron thickness is taxed at a rate of 400% (Zero Waste Maldives). At the same time, the government has not imposed a tax on biodegradable bags. Biodegradable bags are defined as those made from biomass (e.g. starch or gelatin) that are third-party certified. 

Single-use Plastics Import Ban

In 2020, the government amended the regulation to allow the president to compile and make public a list of single use plastics whose import is prohibited. With the guidance established in a complementary Single Use Plastics Phase-Out plan, this legislation will begin with the prohibition of imports on “drinking straws; plates, cutleries and stirrers; Styrofoam lunch boxes; 30x30 cm carrier bags; areca nuts in plastic wrapping; single use coffee cups below 250ml; cotton buds with plastic sticks; 50 ml and smaller toiletry bottles; and, below 500ml PET beverage bottles. After December 1, 2022, importation of carrier bags below 50-micron thickness; 50-200 ml toiletry bottles; and, one-liter PET beverage bottles, will also be prohibited” (The President’s Office, 2021).

Single Use Plastics Phase-Out plan

In addition to the prohibitions on imports and levies mentioned above, the Single Use Plastics Phase-Out plan (SUP Phase-Out Plan) includes other policy instruments intended to reduce the quantity of single-use plastics in the Maldives. These include increasing existing levies on SUP imports (e.g. plastic bags, PET bottles and raw materials, plastic balloon sticks, single use plastic party decorations), exempting levies on alternatives to SUP (e.g. package-free products, utensils made from bamboo, and water filtration systems), developing fees on SUPs at the point of sale (e.g. plastic bags, balloon sticks, decorations, and condiment tubes), and creating incentive programs for businesses that import, develop, and sell SUPs. The plan also has set policy and regulatory goals related to increasing data collection on imports of SUPS to determine national reduction and collection targets, passing extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation for bottles, food and drink containers, food packaging, and household cleaning products and beauty products. Linked to this EPR mechanism will be a Deposit Refund System for products included in the EPR legislation. Simultaneously the government intends to provide the infrastructure for the provision of potable water as an alternative to PET bottles, and mandate the use of non-plastic alternatives such as soap and shampoo bottles in tourism facilities, water re-fill stations in public spaces, and non-plastic sea sickness bags among others. Lastly, all of these regulatory and economic instruments will be supplemented with information-based instruments including public awareness campaigns on SUS, waste segregation, and littering.

Environmental Protection and Preservation Act of Maldives

According to this legislation, waste that is deemed harmful to the environment “shall not be disposed within the territory of Maldives”, though the legislation does not specify whether or not this includes any type of plastic. In order to avoid disposing into the environment, waste can be landfilled, incinerated, or exported.

Regulation on the Protection and Conservation of Environment in the Tourism Industry

This legislation, which is intended to “to protect the environment in the tourism industry and to encourage and facilitate sustainable development of tourism” includes mandates to separate plastic among other waste types in separate bins and labeled and prohibits the burning of plastics waste in open areas.

Multilateral Partnerships and Campaigns

Prior to the national SUP ban, a “Ban the Bags” campaign spearheaded by corporate actors such as Maldives Getaways and telecommunications firm Dhiraagu resulted in SUP bag bans on the islands of Bodufolhudhoo, Ukulhas, and Keyodhoo. It is unclear if these were codified via subnational law or voluntary commitments made by stakeholders on the island.

 In addition, the government has received loan and grants to develop a waste-to-energy incinerators on Thilafushi (Asian Development Bank, 2020) and on Vandhoo in Raa Atoll (Lorson and Kadarli, 2015). Likewise, a GEF small grants loan resulted in the development of waste segregation infrastructure on the island of Magoodhoo, which was intended to minimize burning, however the funding ultimately ran out and more financial support was needed to continue waste segregation.

The Maldives is a member of the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance, an action group comprising Commonwealth countries. Member states of the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance are encouraged to:

  • Take steps to eliminate all avoidable single-use plastic waste
  • Significant reduction of single-use plastic carrier bags by 2021
  • Ban of the sale and manufacture of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic and personal care products by 2021
  • To join the London Protocol, the UN Clean Seas Campaign, and the Global Ghost Gear Initiative

While the Maldives have taken strides on the first two steps, the country has yet to take action on microbeads or join other multinational initiatives.

Policy Effectiveness

The differentiated tax rates for imports of non-biodegradable and biodegradable plastic bags have resulted in a 76% reduction in the importation of non-biodegradable plastic bags from 2012 to 2017, and an increase in the importation of biodegradable bags in that same period of time. While this tax rate has had a positive impact on the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags, there has simultaneously been an increase in biodegradable plastic bag use, which are also single-use and are entered into an insufficient waste management sector (Chasse, 2018). As part of the regulation, biodegradable bags are labeled with “Environmentally Friendly Bag”, which obfuscates the truth that biodegradable bags are still harmful to natural systems. According to Zero Waste Maldives, “[a]lmost all of the importers now import oxobiodegradable bags which disintegrate into microplastics over time and are in fact more harmful to the environment than the regular plastic bags” (Ismail and Hussain, 2019).


Rachel Karasik, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

John Virdin, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions


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Thanks go to the UNDP Ocean Innovation Challenge for their generous support of this work.