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How the Maldives Can Lead the World on Plastic

Opinion Editorial by Sonu Shivdasani, CEO, Joint Creative Director and Co-Founder of Soneva luxury resort chain, on the plethora of benefits Maldives' would reap, should the nation choose to lead the world in the fight to eradicate plastics.

14 July 2019, MVT 10:55
A beach clean-up in Maldives. Plastic bottles litter every beach in the country. PHOTO: SONEVA
14 July 2019, MVT 10:55

The Government should be commended for its recent announcement to phase-out certain single-use plastics in the country. Although details haven’t yet been revealed, items such as single-use plastic bags, bottles, and straws could be banned.

Following from behind

Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags, in 2002. China, Israel, South. Africa, The Netherlands, Morocco, Kenya, Rwanda, Mauritania, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Albania, and Georgia have since implemented similar bans. Last year, New Zealand became the latest country to ban plastic bags.

According to the United Nations, 127 countries had implemented some type of policy regulating plastic bags by July 2018. Twenty-seven countries also enacted some type of ban on other single-use plastics like plates, cups, straws, or packaging.

One of the many types of cloth bags in use at Soneva Fushi. PHOTO: SONEVA

Clearly, a plastic bags ban is an easy step, and the Maldives will be following many countries that have banned the bag. Typically, a country gives a 6 month period for the cleanup and elimination of plastic bags.

Fortunately today, there are so many alternatives to plastic. At Soneva Fushi, we banned plastic bags almost since we opened. We issue our hosts' little cloth bags costing $3.5 per bag (which can be purchased from Green Cotton Co, Thailand). Every new Soneva host receives one of these bags.

California may the only state in the world to have banned plastic straws from restaurant tables, however, many companies are actively removing them. At Soneva, we have never used plastic straws. There are so many great alternatives, from paper straws to bamboo (our straw suppliers are Fino Private Ltd, based in Male’, and Jiggers, based in Thailand).

Bamboo straws used at Soneva resorts. PHOTO: SONEVA

The opportunity to lead the way

Many countries have already banned plastic bags, and plastic straws are being eradicated by companies anyway. However, my research shows that no country has yet banned single-use plastic bottles.

At Soneva and Six Senses, we banned single-use plastic bottles in all our resorts back in 2008. It seemed a difficult and bold decision at the time, but we soon realized that it was a win-win.

There were obvious ecological benefits from banning branded water and instead of serving water bottled on site. We took a linear process of extraction, shipping, manufacturing, more shipping, production, more shipping, consumption, and then waste, and converted it into a circular process. We discovered that there were also other benefits, such as a smarter tabletop presence. We use our glass bottles thousands of times, so they are elaborated with beautiful ceramic tops. We also offer a healthier product, as we add minerals to our water.

We save a lot on administration by avoiding the entire process of requisitioning bottled water, purchasing it, shipping it to the island, and placing it in stores. There has also been a financial saving. Our cost of water went from 20% of water sales down to 2%. In other words, we saved 18% of our water revenues. At Soneva and Six Senses, we decided to give this saving to water charities, and to date, 800,000 people have benefited as a result.

Our decision not to serve branded water has provoked little pushback from our guests. Every year, no more than 2 or 3 guests complain, whereas lots of guests congratulate us for the initiative. In summary, we made a small change to the way we do business, it did not affect our profitability, and it raised a considerable amount for charity.

At Soneva, we recently took the decision that all our Maldives water revenues (USD 300,000) would go to the Soneva Foundation, and that this money will be contributed to the Soneva Namoona Baa initiative which has adopted three islands in Baa Atoll (Dharavandhoo, Maalhos, and Kihaadhoo), and is championing the elimination of single use plastic on these islands. So far, we have installed a water bottling plant on Maalhos, and within the first five months, the water bottling plant sold 39,000 liters of water, thus eliminating a similar number of plastic bottles.

Once more at the forefront

The Government’s announcement on plastic is a huge opportunity for the Maldives to regain the mantle of global environmental leadership. If the Maldives were to ban the single use of plastic bottles, the country could regain the positive reputation it had when President Nasheed announced his ambition to make the Maldives carbon neutral by 2020; and held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the dangers of climate change.

The underwater cabinet meeting was viewed all over the world. It was even referred to by Al Gore on 60 Minutes, an American television program with 11 million viewers. The underwater cabinet meeting probably generated more positive PR for the Maldives than the tourism promotion board achieved over the entire year.

As entrepreneurs in the country, Eva and I noticed a huge improvement in the demand for our resorts, as a result of the positive global attention President Nasheed’s environmental initiatives created.

Soneva Fushi produces drinking water on site, served in beautiful glass jugs or bottles. PHOTO: SONEVA

Lead from the front or follow from behind

The Government has a choice as it formulates its policy on single-use plastic. It can make a token gesture, and follow behind the other 127 nations that have legislated to eliminate some single-use plastic items. Or the Maldives could once more lead all other nations.

If the country decides to ban single-use plastic bottles, it will create global headlines and generate considerable positive PR for the Maldives. For the hotel and resort industry, it will be fantastic, as it will generate international goodwill towards the country, and result in an increase in tourism.

Our industry has suffered in recent years because of political challenges such as crackdowns on protests in Male; people calling for a tourism boycott, and States of Emergency. It will be so nice to get back to a period where the Governments actions are driving goodwill and boosting tourism demand.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, arrivals increased by 15% in the first quarter of 2019. This is a remarkable growth rate for a period where a lot of the major markets to the Maldives have slowing economies. I have no doubt that this positive performance is as a result of the free elections that took place last September, and the fact that the opposition won. A ban on single-use plastic bottles would help maintain this positive momentum.

I can imagine that this is a difficult decision for President Solih and his government to make. I wish him success and pray that he makes a bold statement that will be good for business, the economy, the Maldivian people, and humanity. I hope the decision will result in the Maldives leading the way, not following from behind.

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