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A Blue View: Artificial Islands

The Maldives' ‘trash island’ grows at a rate of one square meter every 24 hours.

Published February 02, 2016


Each year, nearly one million tourists visit the Maldives, a tiny island nation south of India known for its stunning natural beauty and warm weather. But those visitors, along with the country's 350,000 residents, generate a massive amount of garbage.

In December 1991, the Maldives government converted the island Thilafushi into a landfill to store the nearly 330 tons of waste produced each day. The country dug huge pits into the formerly pristine lagoon, now dubbed “Rubbish Island.” Waste was dumped into the pits, which were then topped with a layer of construction debris and covered in sand.

trash island

For the past twenty years, the island has grown at a rate of one square meter per day. Today, Thilafushi has a landmass of more than 0.43 square kilometers and is leased for industrial activities, such as cement packing, methane gas bottling and large-scale warehousing.

The man-made island contains batteries, asbestos and other potentially hazardous materials mixed with municipal solid wastes, all of which pose an increasingly serious ecological threat, not to mention the toll they take on human health.

While batteries and electronics comprise just a small fraction of the debris, they are a concentrated source of toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead and mercury. Those chemicals can leach into the water, endangering the surrounding reefs and aquatic life.

Episode Transcript

Our planet is misnamed. With 71 percent of it underwater, what we call Earth is really a water planet. For us earthlings, who can only thrive on land, that’s a problem, one compounded by our inability to live where it’s too cold, hot, dry or wet for us. Like Goldilocks and her porridge, humans only want things "just right.”

Well, those "just-right" conditions are limited on this blue planet. The amount of land on which humans secure a livelihood adds up to a mere 10 percent of the Earth's surface. Seven billion of us are living on a cosmic dime’s worth of real estate.

Many believe our growing species needs more land—to live, farm and survive. One way is to coax that arable land from Earth's lapping lakes and vast oceans. In fact, we’ve been doing just that kind of geo-engineering for a long time. With dredged sand, rock and aggregates by the millions of tons, our species has been creating artificial islands for centuries.

The fabled floating city of Tenochtitlán (tay-NOTCH-teet-LAN) was an island built by the once-mighty Aztec people in the middle of a lake, in what is now Mexico City. More than five centuries ago, farmers worked it into fertile ground and grew crops to feed a burgeoning population.

Over the ensuing centuries, the Aztecs expanded their capital, adding new artificial islands connected by canals. Today, Mexico City is the largest in the Western Hemisphere—a megalopolis of 21 million people that began as a manmade island.

Evidence of early island-building is also evident in the Old World. Archeologists believe the bushy ridges of land in Scottish and Irish lochs are islands built by wealthy lords to protect their possessions from thieves.

Perhaps the most famous artificial islands are the Palm Islands of Dubai. Made from reclaimed coastal sand, they were shaped to look like the fronds of a palm tree when seen from space. The island-resort added 40 miles to Dubai's coastline and 60,000 new residents.

More fanciful still is the manmade archipelago of 300 white sand islets called World Islands, also in the United Arab Emirates. From high above, they resemble a world map. Named after the nations of the world, each island is for sale. Right now, Italy is available but Lebanon Island is occupied. Art imitating life.

In addition to expanding living space and arable land, island-building can be used for political gain. China’s recent, aggressive move into an obscure group of islands in the South China Sea is one such case. By dredging, filling and occupying an archipelago also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, China has made geopolitical pawns of once-pristine coral reefs. We will surely be hearing more about this unfortunate new use of artificial islands.

And in the faraway Indian Ocean, in the Maldives, there is one island that’s not like any other. Quite unlike the 27 other coral atolls that make up this island republic, Thilafushi Island comprises 125 acres of—hold your nose—garbage. Called “the rubbish island” and growing at a pace of 11 square feet a day, this strange little outpost now boasts a population of 150, all engaged in salvaging what they can from a toxic accretion that includes used batteries, e-waste, asbestos and lead.

And there you have it. We create islands for good and bad purposes…but none can change the immutable fact that our water planet is finite. Our ultimate success will depend on our ability to be its stewards, not merely its consumers.

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