Mabul, off the Eastern coast of the island of Borneo, Malaysia, is a tropical island paradise – screen-saver worthy turquoise blue seas meet white sandy beaches, fringed by tall palm trees swaying gently in the breeze.
It is also pretty much covered in garbage – plastic bags dance in the shallow waters over its coral reefs, used diapers wash back and forth as gentle waves hit its bleached white beaches, and almost every corner of the land (except for the grounds of the pricey resorts) is covered in discarded plastic bottles, ripped clothing, bits of wire, and anything else you can think of, especially along the shoreline.
The island sits near both the borders with Indonesia and the Philippines and attracts unrecognised immigrants from both those countries, as well as ‘sea gypsies’, stateless people who are reportedly the world’s only marine-based nomadic population. The tiny 20 hectare speck of land is shared by two local villages which pretty much run together, totalling around 2000 people, and a set of resorts and guesthouses which cater to dive tourists attracted by nearby legendary Sipadan.
Some of the local villagers seem to simply toss their trash on the ground, which then inevitably gets washed into the ocean, or throw it directly out of their windows into the sea. Many obviously try to burn the trash (unsorted, including plastics), which leaves charred piles lying by the sides of the paths.
The resorts and guesthouses aren’t any better, with many burying their garbage as a solution. When you start to think about it, the only place they have to bury the trash is essentially on the beach, which will eventually get washed into the sea on this tiny island. A number of these lodgings, as well as many local dwellings sit out over the water on stilts (per the local style of building), with the water refuse from the kitchens and bathrooms draining directly into the ocean, complete with whatever soaps and chemicals it may contain.
It would be easy to condemn the locals, and the resorts and guesthouses. But then you think… where would they take the garbage? You could ship it to the mainland. The closed mainland town, Semporna seems to have an even worse garbage problem, with the streets piled high with trash, and the water washing into shore even more full of refuse than in Mabul.
And even then, only the wealthy resorts would have the funds to ship of their garbage, if they chose to do so. The local people wouldn’t have the capacity to pay for this: most of them can’t afford basic healthcare, which explains the reportedly 1 in 3 child mortality rates.
In case you’re wondering – no, the Malaysian government does not provide a garbage removal service to the people of Mabul. Neither do they provide a health care service, or many other essential services. From what I could see, the only Government provided service is the primary school which only caters to children up to aged 12 and is available to less than half of the Island’s children (only registered Malaysian citizens are eligible to attend the school, whereas the undocumented migrants cannot).
It’s easy to judge the islanders when you see the piles of garbage raked up by the side of the paths around the island (there are no roads), or even scattered on the ground between the houses in the villages. But, aside from being more visible, is the garbage choking this island any different than the trash we pile in dumps or dig into landfill in wealthy countries?
This island is a microcosm of what we are doing on a global scale. As a planet, we are producing more and more waste which ultimately has nowhere to go – the citizens of wealthy countries have the luxury of shipping of their garbage and forgetting about it. Much of this garbage however, even for the most dedicated recycler, will end up in landfill, poisoning our land and probably eventually making it back into the oceans, even if it is long after we are gone.