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Indonesia: The Big Plastic Problem

18 July 2018


Bali is famously coined the land of the gods, a beautiful mecca of heaven-like mountains and jungles where spirituality is felt through every being. While this may still be partly true, it is impossible to miss the impact humans have had on the environment over the past 50 years or so. Indonesia is rife with environmental issues; from deforestation due to the palm oil industry, to species endangerment but no problem is greater or more damaging here than plastic pollution. As someone out here working for an environmental organisation you may think it obvious I notice and draw attention to this, but I think even as a tourist it is impossible to ignore the roadsides littered in bottles or plastic-bergs congesting river flows.


Four of Indonesia rivers rank among the most polluted in the world and Bali itself is responsible for emitting 200,000 tonnes of plastic every year. This is a massive problem that is highly unsustainable and taking its toll on the natural environment. Rivers have become so polluted that the majority of the population are dependent on single-use plastic water bottles, which become a part of their everyday lives. But the worst impact is when all this plastic is inevitably washed out to sea where it can entangle marine life, destroy precious coral reef ecosystems and be broken down to harmful toxins. I’m sure many people have already seen the famous video clip of a diver Richard Horn in Manta Bay, Nusa Penida (a small island off the east coast of Bali) as he tries to snorkel through the sea of trash. Manta rays are a common animal in these seas and as filter feeders are particularly susceptible to intake of plastic and seriously threatened by the issue.

There are many causes of this trash crisis but the most prevalent one is a lack of education.  I think it is common for many tourists to come to the island and be disgusted by the rubbish and blame the people themselves, citing them as wasteful and lazy which could not be further from the truth. Indonesia has one of the most over-subscribed education systems in the world with few resources and many children to educate. As a result, there is simply no teachers or time available for environmental education. Kids grow up not knowing what organic and inorganic means or understanding the effect of plastic on the environment. This leads to both children and adults here feeling out of touch with the issue and often embarrassed by the judgement of foreigners so much so it has become a sensitive topic to discuss with locals.


The Government is also to blame, they set targets far too high on tourism with no regard for the environmental impact. In the UK we are lucky, recycling is government initiative we are awarded with freely but in Bali this is not the case. There is only one organisation on the island that correctly separates waste, EcoBali recycling and while they are doing a great thing for the community, they are forced to charge money to allow people to recycle and for many locals this is a luxury they simply can’t afford. The cheaper alternative is to burn trash, these small street fires are a common site is rural areas and have the devastating effect of releasing greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrogen dioxide leading to health professionals raising alarm for the possibility of high cancer rates.


The government here is beginning to take notice, in fact they have pledged to reduce plastic debris by 70% in 2025 and begun a programme of melting down plastic waste to reuse in the creation of cheap, plastic roads adding to necessary infrastructure. This is a start, but without an increase in investment in waste management and education I fear this problem will worsen as population and tourism in the area continues to rise.


All of this got me thinking, what I or tourists and general can do to help. After all, when we visit the area we to create waste and form part of the problem, so here are some tips i came up with to travel in Bali sustainably:

1. Bring a reusable water bottle and bags

Many hotels and restaurants will have water filters, so you can refill easily and not have to purchase single use plastic

2. Avoid take-out food

Often comes in non-biodegradable containers.

3. Eat locally

Not only is it often cheaper and helps support the local community, but you also reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by imports.

4. Volunteer in a beach clean up

This is a fun way to give back to the community, enjoy the sun and meet other travellers. There are many organisations in Bali always happy to welcome new volunteers such as trash hero.

5. Help with education

A key concept of sustainability is sharing knowledge, why not get involved in the community and volunteer at a school teaching kids what you know about the environment.