Common questions about the Aldabra Clean-Up Project answered by project co-lead April J Burt

1. Why does it cost so much money?

Aldabra is over 1000 km from the main island of Mahé in Seychelles – it is actually much closer to Madagascar – but this isolation means that there are limited options for getting both people and supplies to and from Aldabra.  It costs the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) several hundred thousand dollars annually to fund two supply boats that visit the atoll and drop off supplies for the staff at the research station. But this cost only covers a shared vessel that stops at several islands. For the clean-up project we will need to charter a dedicated vessel to come directly to Aldabra. It will bring some essential supplies and stay  for about one week to complete the loading of trash, before returning directly to Mahé. This will cost about SCR1.3 million/£80,000.

The only way of getting people on/off Aldabra is to catch a lift on a supply boat or charter a small plane to and from Assomption Island (about 37km south-east of Aldabra). The planes cost SIF upwards of one hundred thousand dollars per year, just to cover the costs of a few essential flights that enable staff to take annual leave and to transport new staff to the atoll. For the clean-up, we need to get the whole team down to Aldabra and then off again, this will mean chartering two flights!

The remainder of the funds are necessary for equipment (slings, gunny bags, GPSs, trash grabbers) and logistical needs such as new water tanks at field camps plus fuel for boats to take us round the atoll to various affected beaches. In addition, we have a small number of other project objectives including research, outreach and education.

Since reaching our funding target, we are looking at the possibility of up-scaling our project outputs and the overall value of the project, but we’ll see how this goes before announcing our new aims.

2. Why haven’t SIF, who manage Aldabra, been collecting the trash regularly?

Plastic pollution has probably been accumulating along Aldabra’s coastlines for several decades, but it’s only in recent years that it has become so noticeable. The worst-impacted area is the rarely visited and most difficult-to-access southern island of Grande Terre, where staff have noticed a sudden rise in plastic accumulation. They have sadly also seen an increased impact of this trash on Aldabra’s wildlife. A rapid assessment by SIF staff of the scale of the problem quickly revealed that the current level of trash is too high to be dealt with as part of the usual work-plan.

SIF is a non-profit charitable organisation that was established as a public trust by the government of Seychelles in 1979. SIF manages and protects the two Seychelles UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Aldabra Atoll and the Vallée de Mai. The cost of running Aldabra as a research station – and maintaining a core team of staff on the atoll to ensure its protection – is entirely subsidised by visitor fees from Vallée de Mai and the small number of cruise-ships that visit Aldabra itself. This funding is enough to cover the basic running costs of the station and the hiring of necessary staff to manage and protect the atoll. But all additional conservation projects undertaken by SIF have been funded externally by big funding organisations. SIF therefore has to write project proposals and apply for these highly competitive funding pools to accomplish any extra projects.

To date, these projects have been highly successful, including the hugely successful eradication of invasive bird species from both Assomption and Aldabra, ensuring the protection of Aldabra’s endemic bird species. For the clean-up, SIF has tried a different approach – working with The Queen’s College, Oxford, to raise the required sum from a variety of donors, both individual and corporate, and using these funds to help apply for further grant money, both in the UK and in Seychelles.

3. Once you clean up the trash it will just keep arriving, so what is the plan?

Once the coasts have been cleared of this long-term accumulation of waste and we have measured the rate at which trash is accumulating on Aldabra (this is part of the research aims), we will work out how to incorporate regular clean-ups into the Aldabra work-plan and allocate the appropriate amount of resources to this.

This may mean that the SIF will need to charter a vessel every 2-3 years to collect the trash that has been collected and stored by staff and this will add considerably to the running costs. But SIF is committed to keeping Aldabra free from plastic pollution.

4. Why can’t more people come and join the clean-up expedition?

Aside from the costs of transporting people to and from Aldabra, the size of the team is limited by the resources of Aldabra itself. The research station supports a staff team of 15 people, plus visiting researchers. So, even with the addition of 12 ACUP volunteers, the station will be surpassing its maximum capacity in terms of beds…but the biggest resource constraint is water and food.

Water is collected in large tanks on Picard island research station, while at the field camps, we rely on water collected from the hut roofs. These tanks must retain enough water to provide for the clean-up team, but there must be enough water left for the Aldabra staff throughout the south-east monsoon seasons when there is little to no rain. Needless to say, when we are at station we will all be taking very short showers and when we are on camp we will need to be even more careful of our water use.

So, unless additional large-scale water catchment systems were built at both the main station and at the field camps, it is just not possible to increase the capacity on the atoll. Despite not being able to join in person, many people are following us on social media, donating and sharing their stories of how they are making an impact closer to home. Plastic pollution is everywhere, and everyone’s actions count.

The Cinq Cases field hut on Grande Terre has a new water catchment system

5. What is going to happen to all the plastic you collect?

This has definitely turned out to be our most challenging objective to meet. If possible, we would like to prevent all the waste we collect from going into landfill by re-using, re-purposing and re-processing as much of it as possible. Admittedly, this is easier with some items and materials than others. We have several categories that will be used to segregate the waste during collection.

Common items like flip flops, plastic bottles, glass bottles, fishing buoys and rope will be collected separately. Once collected in slings and gunny bags, these items will be sent back to Mahé where further segregation will take place. Larger items, like buoys, will be given to organisations operating at sea – especially conservation-orientated ones based in Seychelles.

We are also in discussion with local and international processors to find out whether our plastic can be chipped down and reused. We hope to create art pieces and other exhibits from plastic, particularly flip-flops which are hard to recycle, that could be displayed in Aldabra House.

Our main aim with these initiatives is to help promote the circular economy in Seychelles. If we can set up a pipeline for repurposing waste from Aldabra, then together with international and local partners, we can transform the plastic collected on Aldabra into a value-added product that might ultimately pay for its removal. Unfortunately, some plastic will inevitably be too degraded by the sun and salt to be reused, and this will probably end up in the landfill, but we hope to minimise the amounts.

Finally, we are hoping to play a part in helping to facilitate the Seychelles government to improve waste management and recycling facilities in Seychelles. These islands will continue to act as nets for plastic pollution and long-term solutions need to be found.


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