Reality TV star shines spotlight on ‘trash islands’

In early October, an American woman posed for a series of striking photos to promote cleaning up the Maldives Islands. This photo campaign – which includes her wearing a bikini made of old bottles and surfing in a pile of trash – has received mixed reactions in the Maldives.


Alison Teal poses dressed in plastic bottles. Photo from "Alison's Adventure" by Sarah Lee.

In early October, an American woman posed for a series of striking photos to promote cleaning up the Maldives Islands. This photo campaign – which includes her wearing a bikini made of old bottles and surfing in a pile of trash – has received mixed reactions in the Maldives.

Alison Teal, who hails from Hawaii, took part in the American TV reality show “Naked and Afraid” in 2013. In the show, participants have to survive on a Maldives beach for 21 days, without any water or food - completely naked. During the shoot, Teal discovered that most of the islands’ beaches are covered in all sorts of trash.

A month after the end of shooting, the young woman returned to the islands where she launched her campaign, “One man’s trash is another woman’s bikini.” This educational campaign also has a commercial aspect: for 62 dollars, you can buy a bikini entirely made of recycled bottles on her website.

Alison Teal swims in the Maldives. Photo "Alison's Adventure" by Mark Tipple.

"In ten minutes, you can pick up a pile of bottles that reaches your waist"

The most shocking is Thilafushi island, where there is a real mountain of trash. But you can also find plastic bottles all over the other islands. We organised several trash cleanups with Maldivians kids. In just 10 minutes, you can gather a stack of bottles that goes up to your waist! Thilafushi presented a great opportunity to make bikinis and other clothes out of plastic.

Of course, there’s also the visual and sexy side to the campaign, which is how people came to hear about it. But I didn’t do this to criticise recycling policies in the Maldives. A lot of the trash is due to the presence of tourists [Editor’s Note: According to environmental defence organizations, about 600,000 tourists visit the Maldives per year, and each person generates about 3.5 tons of waste per day.] I could have gone to any open-air dump in the world and taken the same photos.

Alison Teal organised trash cleanup drives with kids on several of the Maldives’ islands.

The 2012 coup’s effect on trash management

The Thilafushi open-air dump exists since 1992. Most of the Maldives’ trash ends up there. The 40-kilometre square island is home to numerous industries, such as boat factories. According to several experts, these activities generate on average 300 tonnes of trash per day.

To try to fight this pollution, an agreement was signed in 2011 between Maldives’ authorities and an Indian waste management company. However, when the president Mohamed Nasheed was ousted by a coup in February 2012, this agreement went into limbo. It was finally annulled last week, after pressure from Thilafushi officials. No incinerator has been built, and most of the trash keeps getting burned in the open air, which creates toxic fumes.


Alison Teal dressed in plastic that washed up on the beach. Photo from “Alison’s Adventure” by Mark Tipple.

Yet not everyone is pleased with Teal’s campaign. In the capital Malé, some politicians who are close to the current president call Teal’s campaign “an attempt to ruin the country’s tourism industry”. Teal responds:

People who say this would do better to look for a solution to this growing mountain of trash. All I’m trying to do is trying to alert people to the consequences of small actions like throwing a plastic bottle into the sea. I intend to return to the Maldives to continue this work.

“Thilafushi is hell on earth. This campaign does help bring attention to this problem”

Teal’s marketing strategy – selling clothing made out of recycled plastic – is not a first: last February, singer Pharrell Williams launched his own clothing line made with recycled plastic from the ocean.

In the Maldives, environmental activist are keeping a close eye on Teal’s work. Shadhu (not his real name) is one of them.

On one side, this American’s initiative bothers me a bit, especially since it involves a commercial aspect. But on the other side, it does help bring attention to the Thilafushi problem. Maldives activists have often tried to launch similar campaigns, but they weren’t as successful. Since she started her project, it seems that the international media has realized just how huge this trash mountain has become. It’s a real thorn in the side of the authorities. Many of the government’s supporters even claim she did this hand-in-hand with the opposition.

I worry that it will now be harder for activists to go to Thilafushi island. We’ve already noticed that sea patrols around the island have been reinforced.

Bangladeshi employees work for very low wages with no protection, according to our Observer. Photo courtesy of Hani Amir.

It’s too bad that she chose to paint this issue in a simplistic way, without talking about the humanitarian aspect of the problem. The companies who deal with all these tonnes of trash employ workers from Bangladesh, who often work without any protection. Many of them have their passports confiscated and are forced to work in the factories. I went there in 2012 with other activists, and I can tell you it’s hell on earth: it’s so hot in the trash piles that my shoes nearly melted off.

Alison Teal hopes to return to the Maldives to continue her work. Photo from Alison's Adventure by Sarah Lee.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).