Bali’s ‘waste warriors’ work against the clock to save island

Rubbish is a nationwide problem in Indonesia. Source: Shutterstock

AS much of a paradise Bali is, much of it is rubbish – literally.

Plastic and waste are clogging up drains and strewing sandy beaches, and if little is done to turn things around, the island’s tourism industry will take a serious toll.

To accommodate the 12 million visitors who enter Bali every year, as many as 80 percent of jobs on the island depend on tourism. It’s a lot to consider if rubbish makes tourists turn their backs on Bali one day.

While rubbish is a nationwide problem in Indonesia – 3.6 billion kgs of plastic waste are produced and 258 billion plastic bags are used in the country every year – it’s an especially precarious issue in Bali owing to its tourism revenues.

However, all is not lost. Speaking at the recent Ubud Food Festival, a passionate group of people are trying to mend the dire situation, a situation they say is redeemable if actions are taken now.

SEE ALSO: Bali: Ubud comes alive with annual food festival

Education and reach

While clean-ups and recycling drives are excellent initiatives, the long-term solution to Indonesia’s waste problem is education.

This is something that doesn’t fly past Melati and Isabel Wijsen, the 16- and 14-year-old wunderkinds who founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags, an organization that aims to make Bali plastic-bag free by 2018.

Isabel said, “I remember four years ago, we went to do our first school presentation. And we asked the kids, point blank: ‘Are plastic bags good or bad?’ And every single kid in the room said ‘good’.

“It really opened our minds to see there’s really a huge lack of education here.

“We can’t expect people to come up with the solution if they barely know the problem.”

As a movement that works from the ground up, Bye Bye Plastic Bags also created an educational booklet of 25 pages in the Indonesian language for elementary schools.

Rivers, Oceans, Lands, Ecology (R.O.L.E.) Foundation founder Mike O’Leary agreed education – among locals and tourists – is vital to tackling the issue head-on.

Some may argue the stream of tourists contributes to Bali’s rubbish problem, but tourism revenues could also be channeled back to cleaning up the island and investing in recourses to educate locals about waste.

“A lot of people blame it on the tourists for the waste, but it’s the same as the Gold Coast. When you have tourism, you got to take care of the waste,” O’Leary said.

“If foreigners want to help, education is a non-threatening way to help Bali.”

Not only can tourists donate to the environmental causes they believe in, they can also invest half a day or a few hours of their holiday to take part in waste management programs at orphanages, schools and beaches.

“If we look at the waste as just the by-product and we focus on tourism, that’s where the real money is. So if you want to get to the money, you have to clean up the place,” O’Leary said.

SEE ALSO: Locals in Bali riled by construction of Trump’s ‘six-star’ resort on sacred site 

Waste management

A clear way forward for Bali is a more coherent approach to waste management and separation – what seems to be severely lacking on an island that produces so much trash.

“A good waste management system is very simple and very easy to see. And when see some good systems in place, you’ll easily see them just [as you do] in Australia or Germany,” O’Leary said.

“The trash comes in and they should get separated straight away within two hours and gets put in its place.”

However, Bali’s waste management system is worryingly outdated with most rubbish accumulated in an open dump, or chipped up, shredded and sent back to China.

This is what Bali's beaches looked like in January just before I left. all covered in tons of plastic trash.. as shocking as this is, it only gives a brief idea about the real condition our oceans are in at the moment. What frightenes me the most is that most people – apart from a few backpacker organisations that started having beach cleaning events – apparently don't even care about what is happening… you see children playing with the trash and swimming in dirty water while restaurant owners dug holes to hide the pollution from the tourists and keep Bali's 'untouched' apparence up. People need to wake up and realize that we only have this one earth to live on. Heartbreaking to see this misery with my own eyes..😷⚠ #stopitplease #balitrash

A post shared by Franziska Theresa (@franziskaherath) on

“Even Coca Cola doesn’t have a recycling platform in Indonesia,” O’Leary said. “Indonesia is probably 30-50 years behind in waste management. It’s really old technology, old machinery, everything.”

Starting small, a village-scale project called Merah Putih Hijau aims to empower locals by benefiting them for waste management efforts.

The project aims to sort, process, compost and recycle 90 percent of waste and materials within the village and create a working template that can be replicated in villages across Bali and beyond.

On a larger scale, the Indonesian government recently pledged US$1 billion every year to curb ocean waste, and to mend its reputation as the world’s second biggest ocean polluters after China.

According to The Guardian, many Indonesian companies still produce “small-scale products such as single-use shampoo packets and confectionery popular in communities where cash flow pressures and habit prevent more sustainable consumption”.

On top of a lack of government transparency and a poor waste management infrastructure, Indonesia has a long way to go in achieving its ambitious goals of reducing its waste by 70 percent by 2025.

Plastic alternatives

To paint a picture of Bali’s exuberant consumption of plastic, all the plastic straws used on the island in one day can link Bali to Sydney. If you’re talking about straws used Indonesia-wide, you could loop them around Earth.

Avani is a company that uses technology to combat plastic pollution and offer solutions to Bali’s hospitality and retail industries about plastic alternatives.

The startup spearheaded the production of items like takeaway cups, boxes, cutlery, straw, paper bags and laundry bags made entirely with renewable resources including cassava.

Co-founder Daniel Rosenqvist said, “[Our product] dissolves in seconds in water over 80 degrees. If it ends up in the ocean, for example, it takes about 150 days to dissolve, so it’s still fairly quick.

“I think now it’s a matter of changing the mindset of business owners.”

However, many local businesses are resisting the concept of plastic alternatives – mainly due to higher price points.

“In general, our bags cost about three to five times more than plastic bags,” Rosenqvist said. “If we could reach a scenario where we can reach a level price point if we can get tax levies from the government as well as imposing taxes on plastics.”

Rosenqvist also stressed on waste separation and its value in helping to clean up Bali. “If you have a scenario where you separate, then you have by-plastic waste that can be processed into biofuel as well as having the compost as fertilizer,” he said.

Another way to get business owners and those in governance to adopt sustainable practices is if people start to see a life cycle analysis about the risks of a dirty Bali to tourism revenues.

SEE ALSO: Is there such a thing as ‘too many tourists’ for New Zealand?

“We’ll start seeing that plastic costs more to the economy than it provides. That will be motivators for people [and the government] to implement change,” Melati said.

If tourists don’t want to walk across plastic-strewn sawah, stroll along dirty beaches, or risk eating plastic-infested seafood in the tropical paradise that is Bali, the island could well lose its status as Asia’s favourite beach destination, or even the best destination on Earth.

As O’Leary summed it, “Maybe there’s not a lot of money in waste, but there’s a lot of money in a clean, beautiful Bali.”