The Other Side of the Postcard: Photos Highlight Massive Island of Plastic Trash in the Maldives

Greg Keraghosian
·Associate Travel Editor
alison teal maldives
alison teal maldives

Alison Teal walking through “Trash Island,” a giant landfill in the Maldives that gets up to 400 tons of trash per day. (All photos: Sarah Lee)

Filmmaker Alison Teal was in the process of literally exposing herself to a national TV audience when she found new inspiration: exposing the serious and complex trash-pollution issues affecting the Maldives, and turning plastic garbage into something useful.

Teal’s photo shoot of the landfill called “Trash Island” and other islands in the Maldives are head-turning in their contrast to the usual postcard-perfect photos associated with the archipelago. Seeing her walk amid mountains of empty water bottles and other trash with her surfboard, it’s almost apocalyptic.  

alison teal maldives
alison teal maldives

"Trash Island" is Thilafushi, a manmade island.

Teal told Yahoo Travel that she doesn’t consider herself an activist, and that the inspiration behind her photo shoot and upcoming film about the Maldives wasn’t typical. After she’d created a series of lighthearted travel adventure films called “Alison’s Adventures,” the Discovery Channel cast her in the docudrama “Naked and Afraid.”  In each episode, a man and woman who have never met must spend 21 days wearing no clothes surviving in the wilderness.

Teal’s 2013 episode was shot on a tiny island in the Maldives, and when she wasn’t battling sunburn and dehydration in the intense heat, she was moved by the disturbing amount of plastic bottles she found washing ashore.

alison teal maldives
alison teal maldives

A walk through burning waste on Thilafushi.

“When we left, we made a raft out of plastic bottles to get away, and I said I’m going to come back and try to do something about bringing awareness to this,” Teal told Yahoo Travel.

Related: Celebrating World Oceans Day: View the Maldives From Above

A year later, she returned with photographers Mark Tipple and Sarah Lee. Together they formed not just a photo crew, but also a cleanup crew. 

alison teal maldives
alison teal maldives

Teal shows her passion for turning garbage into something wearable.

 The most dramatic garbage shots are of Thilafushi, a landfill west of Malé that received its first load of garbage in 1992. Nicknamed “Trash Island,” it now gets an estimated 300-400 tons of trash per day.

Related: Ocean Trash Turns Into Art at San Francisco Exhibit

alison teal maldives
alison teal maldives

Teal’s surfboard is made of recycled material.

The plastic pollution extends beyond the landfill, though. In the photo below, Teal is standing on the island where she shot “Naked and Afraid.” She estimates that it took her 10 minutes to round up the garbage behind her from just 50 feet of beach.

alison teal maldives
alison teal maldives

Teal on the island where she shot "Naked and Afraid."

"None of [the other islands] are going to look like Thilafushi, but they’re going to look like my “Naked and Afraid” island where they look like paradise from afar but when you get up close it looks like there was a birthday party of 4,000 people and everyone drank a bottle of plastic,” Teal told Yahoo Travel.

Tough surfing on Thilafushi

While she’s literally wearing plastic bottles in some of the photos, Teal isn’t just doing it for dramatic effect. The pink bikini she wears is made of recycled bottles, and her surfboard is made of recycled Styrofoam and sunglasses. She works with a company called Repreve, which turns plastic into wearable fabric for brands such as Patagonia.

alison teal maldives
alison teal maldives

The cleanup crew in action. 

Teal made the return trip with the full permission of the Maldives government, and she stressed that her photo shoot wasn’t a condemnation of the country, but rather that it was meant to spotlight a larger, global pollution problem and to help however she can.  But she does want to see the country create recycling plants that would reduce the towering garbage and provide work to locals.

“To be fair to them, anyone’s landfill you visit wouldn’t look that great,” Teal said. “But the amount of plastic bottles that gather up there and are not recycled? That’s where it’s just like 'WTF.' Let’s start to figure out a way to recycle that, because a lot of people can’t live off anything but bottled water out there.”

Teal with a bottle of water she picked up in the ocean.

The challenges facing the Maldives go far beyond not recycling. With sea levels rising and the country’s 26 atolls about 5 feet above sea level, it’s in danger of eventually sinking into the ocean and releasing untold amounts of pollution.

Related: The Perfect Honeymoon in the Maldives for Every Type of Couple

alison teal maldives
alison teal maldives

The 26 atolls of the Maldives are just 5 feet above sea level.

 Teal says one source of inspiration in her work has been actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who recently pledged $7 million toward ocean conservation over the next two years.

“Maybe I’ll get Leo to do “Naked and Afraid” with me,” Teal joked. “That would be a great next step. “

Here’s a trailer to Teal’s Maldives film, which she plans to release in 2015:

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