I am filling a bag with rubbish plucked from the sand of a tiny Maldivian island. Into the sack goes a tattered plastic slipper emblazoned with the name JW Marriott and Spa, a reminder that the places that bear the brunt of plastic pollution are not necessarily the ones that create it. Milandhoo, in the remote Shaviyani Atoll, has a small population, a handful of mosques and a tiny harbour filled with bobbing fishing boats. I am here with a team of sustainability experts from the nearby Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi, a Green Globe-certified resort leading the way when it comes to sustainability . Neus Segura, the resort’s marine biologist, is visiting Milandhoo’s only school to lead a beach clean-up. In a classroom metres from the beach, she tells students there are seven types of plastic, and makes clear which ones pose the biggest problems. Billions of plastic bits pouring into sea in Hong Kong, study shows Drift, or “ghost”, nets , which are banned from use for fishing in the Indian Ocean archipelago but float into its waters from elsewhere, are among the worst. We head to the beach and the children scatter across the sand, filling several one-tonne sacks with bottles, fragments of fishing nets and discarded flip-flops. Back at the school, Neus plucks pieces of plastic from the bags and explains how they will be sorted and processed back at the resort. It is clear the children have become accustomed to the debris that washes up here, but Neus, who works with the Olive Ridley Project – an organisation that strives to protect sea turtles ) – piques their interest with videos showing marine life many students have never seen. When Neus asks how many pupils can swim, all of the boys raise a hand but none of the hijab-wearing girls do. Then she hands out brightly coloured plastic rulers, explaining that they are made from debris similar to that the children have scooped off the beach. “Waste management programmes – especially in the outer islands – are difficult to manage,” a spokesperson for Maldives Ocean Plastics Alliance (Mopa), an NGO created to tackle the problem of plastic waste , will tell me later. “Raising awareness among locals – especially children – is one way to tackle waste management. But we also need proper waste management facilities and trained personnel. Funding for this is largely missing.” This is why the work of individual resorts can be so important. Most resorts in the Maldives have sustainability managers, but how much they actually achieve is another matter. Guests at the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi can join Neus on her regular missions to local islands, although she admits take-up is low; it is easy to understand why holidaymakers might have other things on their mind. Marine biologist and sustainability manager Sam Dixon was employed before the resort opened, in 2018, to ensure that sustainability was a consideration from the outset. He says he spends hours working out how to reduce plastic, lobbying suppliers to switch to sustainable packaging – cardboard-wrapped chocolate for the minibar, for instance. But this is by no means a plastic-free island. Take, for example, the resort’s funky plastic furniture; the bar stools in the villas or the tables in the kids’ club. Much of it displays a two-tone, speckled effect because it was made with different types of plastic in the island’s sustainability lab, a stack of shipping containers where new life is breathed into rubbish. Guests are encouraged to visit the lab and, during a tour, Neus shows me piles of discarded ice packs used by fishermen. Some wash up on the resort’s shores but many are dropped off by villagers from other islands. There are crates filled with bottles, packaging and tangles of drift nets. Staff typically collect 4kg (8.8 pounds) of litter on clean-ups undertaken every other day along the resort’s beaches. We want the [sustainability] lab and our school programme to inspire the next generation of eco-warriors Sam Dixon, sustainability manager, Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi Guests can try their hand at turning trash into treasure, the star of the show being the extruder. The resort is the only one in the country with an extruder and the minister of the environment attended its launch, in early 2022. Waste plastic is shredded into pellets that are fed into the extruder, which melts the pellets into moulded plastic. The resulting products include turtle-shaped pendants and luggage tags, which guests can take home; the rulers handed out during Neus’ talks; and pressed sheets used to create bespoke items of furniture that can be shipped to guests’ homes. Local schoolchildren are often invited to see the machine in action. “We want the lab and our school programme to inspire the next generation of eco-warriors,” says Dixon. The resort’s sustainability efforts go beyond dealing with plastic. The Fairmont Maldives has 3,307 solar panels but, by the end of July, others placed out in its lagoon – one of the largest in the Maldives – should allow the resort to be 100 per cent reliant on solar energy during the day. And then there is the Coralarium. At first glance, this hollow cube made from pH-neutral steel, designed by underwater sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor and tethered just off the beach, brings to mind the ornate latticework typical of Moroccan riads. Swim inside and you can stare down at weird and wonderful structures that act as artificial reefs. The coral is thriving, as are the fish. Beyond the resort, progress towards a more environmentally friendly Maldives might be slow, but it is at least happening. The government recently banned the import of certain types of single-use plastic, and fish must be caught using a pole and line rather than drift nets. Progress has been achieved in part by the growing number of locally based NGOs, such as Mopa, and research carried out by visiting scientists. “Local islands, especially schools, are where the most impact can be made,” says Michelle Schiele, a PhD research student at Britain’s Loughborough University who has spent years studying the problem of plastic waste and is working with the Maldives National University to create a team of local researchers to collect data relating to its accumulation in the region. “Resorts don’t have much choice when it comes to waste disposal. And while banning single-use plastics is becoming more common, there are still huge issues relating to the supply chain and overuse of polystyrene.” Resorts such as the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi, where Dixon has lobbied suppliers to reduce plastic packaging and is forging relationships with fishermen whose plastic waste is processed at the resort, are proof that progress can be made beyond the beaches dotted with their luxury villas. On my final day at the resort, when I head beneath the waves, I see more marine life than I have ever seen on a single dive, including a curious sea turtle that swims so close to me that I wonder whether it is visually impaired. He is infinitely more spectacular than the tiny plastic turtle I made in the sustainability lab, but I am sure he would approve of my bespoke souvenir.