While some see the plastic waste littering Indonesia’s beaches and countryside as evidence of paradise lost, The Bali Partnership is working to solve the problem – both on land and at sea.
The waves billow over the black volcanic sand of Pantai Sogsogan, a beach in southern Bali. Further out, some surfers get ready to master a wave. Bali has long been viewed as a tropical paradise destination. But besides the long sandy beaches, palm trees, waves and party life, there are things that now disturb this idyll: Lots of plastic bottles, disposable packaging and straws lie scattered across the sand.
“I paddle through rubbish in the water and on the beach it lies in drifts. There is plastic everywhere,” says French Lula Marie Seureolu, 18, who has come to Bali since she was little and usually cleans the plastic off the beach herself.
During the rainy season between December and February, the problem is at its worst as the rivers bring even more plastic to the sea. The problem is that Bali and other Indonesian islands do not have enough waste management facilities and systems to collect the waste, so much of the plastic ends up in the sea. After China, Indonesia is the world’s largest contributor to marine plastic waste.
But despite the gloomy situation, some improvements have recently appeared. Companies and individuals are jointly attacking the problem, and a number of organizations clean Bali’s beaches daily. But even if this does lead to temporarily clean beaches, in the long run the causes must also be dealt with.
Teenage plastic waste pioneers
Following a school lesson on influential people of the world, sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen decided to make a difference themselves – when they were 10 and 12 years old respectively. Bye Bye Plastic Bags was born in 2013, and has since grown to become a global movement of mostly young people who not only want to ban plastic bags – but also launch a number of environmental projects.
Isabel Wijsen, now 17, looks out over the sea from Pantai Sogsogan. Plastic in Bali not only damages marine life, it has damaged the island’s reputation for tourists, who now see beaches full of rubbish. The Wijsen sisters, together with a number of organizations in Bali, have held talks with the government. They are jointly behind the ban on plastic bags that came into force in July 2019, which also applies to styrofoam and disposable plastic straws. Tourists’ photos on social media with polluted beaches no doubt also had an affect on the authorities and made them act.
“By pointing the finger, we get nowhere. It’s about changing people’s attitudes, thinking outside the box. Together we can make a difference,” says Isabel Wijsen.
Since its inception six years ago, Bye Bye Plastic Bags has grown into a network based in 29 countries. Isabel and Melati have become well-known young influencers, and want to continue to inspire young people around the world.
Waste is a growing problem
And change is urgent. Less than half of all waste generated in Bali is disposed of either through recycling or landfills, while the rest is incinerated or ends up in nature. The result is that 33,000 tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year. At the same time as the number of tourists to Bali increases, the rubbish heaps grow. Tourists generate 3.5 times as much waste as the locals, and in total tourists account for thirteen percent of the nation’s waste.
(Based on early 2020 figures, prior to the corona pandemic.)
In 2018, over six million international tourists visited the island (not to mention ten million domestic tourists), which was an increase of ten percent compared to the previous year. Increasing the number of tourists while reducing pollution has therefore become a high priority for the government. As such, it recently began working with The Bali Partnership, in support of President Joko Widodo’s goal of reducing plastic in the sea across the country by 70 percent by 2025. The right expertise and a number of organizations will work together in Bali’s fifteen highest priority districts, where the need for waste management is greatest. The goal over a five-year period is to halve the 33,000 tonnes of plastic that end up in the sea in Bali every year.
Defects in the waste management system
Why then has it gone so far, what is the pervasive problem? A major contributing factor is waste management – which often does not work, as waste responsibility across the country is often decentralized. A well-functioning waste collection management system is vital so that plastic and other harmful rubbish do not end up in the sea. Across Indonesia, however, with a population of 264 million, only 40 percent of garbage is properly taken care of. This leads to 40 million tonnes of waste being spread in nature, where heavy metals and other toxins poison groundwater, rivers and the sea. Other growing economies such as Malaysia and the Philippines have more centralized waste management systems and thus better-functioning collection and sorting systems, while the responsibility in Indonesia and Bali often falls on the local villages.
“Indonesia has over 80,000 villages. It is not possible to expect every village to have the technical ability, interest or financing to install or operate their own waste system,” says Joi Danielson, from the company Systemiq, which is a co-founder of The Bali Partnership.
“Dumping and burning the rubbish is free,” she adds.
To address the problem in Bali, therefore, recycling centers are being built. For example, in Jembrana, which is a district in the western part of the island, and one of the worst affected areas. By 2020, the various facilities will be up and running, which include waste management in households at the local level, the creation of local jobs in the waste sector and the clean-up of existing waste. The project, which goes by the name Project STOP, is one of many upcoming Bali projects, and it will be financially self-sufficient with systems that will be fully run by local authorities and communities, where the focus is on reducing plastic in the sea.
Students as environmental ambassadors
An important component is to bring in the new generation, which is why The Bali Partnership reaches out to local schools across Bali to provide environmental education to children and young people.
One such school is Sekolah Taman Tirta. Inside one of the classrooms, both students and teachers are engaged in the project. The lesson is to teach students not to use plastic and to recycle garbage. The school has a recycling center where all waste is sorted. Organic material becomes new soil under banana trees in the garden. The school’s “zero plastic” curriculum is then taken home by the young students.
“I tell my mother not to use plastic, and we have started recycling at home,” says Agung Mahagangga (12).
Taking better care of waste is necessary if Indonesia is to achieve the goal of a 70 percent reduction in marine plastic waste pollution by 2025. At least according to Gede Hendrawan, researcher in marine environments and marine plastic pollution at Bali’s Udayana University.
“It is an ambitious goal that the government has set, and it can be achieved. But then at the same time, each province and district in the country must collect information on how much waste is generated, how much is not taken care of and how much is leaked into the sea,” says Gede Hendrawan.
He further explains that the infrastructure in waste management and recycling must be expanded quickly, at the same time as changes in attitudes and increased awareness among the local population are required.
For Bali’s part, more waste stations are needed where waste can be sorted, and a larger number of composting plants. Through increased sorting and recycling, a smaller amount of waste goes to the ten landfills in Bali. Strict regulations must prohibit rubbish from spreading in nature, and rivers – just like the sea – must have their plastic problem cleaned up.
“We must install plastic collectors in the rivers that border the villages, which collect the plastic before it reaches the sea,” Gede Hendrawan continues.
According to surveys, Bali residents are ready for change: 87 percent of those surveyed say they want to recycle and reduce their waste. More than 400 cultural and religious organizations, members of the government and the private sector now participate in beach cleaning, education projects, garbage collection and recycling projects.
To what extent does a ban on plastic bags help the environment?
“The ban will have a major impact,” says Gede Hendrawan, “but it is not enough unless the government also builds a network of waste management. Without proper waste management in Bali, it doesn’t matter if more disposable plastic items are banned.”
Facts about waste in Bali
Bali’s rapid economic upswing and increasing number of tourists have led to more plastic and rubbish in general, with a waste management system that hasn’t kept up. The Bali Partnership, including the Bali local government, aims to reduce Bali’s marine plastics by 70 percent over a six-year period. Every day, 829 tonnes of plastic waste is generated in Bali. Of this, 42 percent goes to landfills and 7 percent is recycled. 51 percent of the plastic is mismanaged: 19 percent is burned, 21 percent ends up in nature and 11 percent ends up in rivers and the sea. Thus, 33,000 tonnes of plastic end up in the sea in Bali each year.