A small army of activists clad in yellow T-shirts saying “Trash Hero” marches along the beach in the early morning, clutching tongs and reusable bags, ready to battle the scourge of this tropical paradise – garbage.
The night before, it rained heavily on Bali, the Indonesian island of the gods. The low tide and westerly wind deposited vast amounts of plastic and other waste along the entire length of the beach.
After an hour, the group drags 60kg of trash up to the promenade, but it feels like the proverbial drop in the ocean. The next morning, plastic bottles, drinking bags, straws, chunks of styrofoam and a few coronavirus masks are again steaming in the sun.
On the surface, Bali’s scenery is beguilingly beautiful: colourful fishing boats bob on the blue sea, palm trees sway in the tropical breeze, incense sticks exude the scent of lotus flowers by small Hindu shrines.
But for all the idyll and magic Bali exudes, a closer look at the beaches, canals and patches of forest tells you the island has a seemingly insoluble garbage problem.
The problem also plagues other parts of Indonesia, which is one of the biggest contributors to global plastic pollution. According to a 2021 World Bank report, the island nation produces 7.8 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.
Especially in October and November, the monsoon rains and fierce westerly winds wash tonnes of waste from the sea and from ships onto its beaches. On Bali’s Kuta beach, popular with surfers, “per day, the amount of waste can reach eight to 10 trucks,” local officials told the Bali Sun newspaper.
Meteorological events aside, the inhabitants also lack the necessary environmental awareness, says Wayan Maja, who coordinates the actions of the Trash Heroes in Sanur.
“Many Balinese just throw their trash behind their house, in the forests and rivers without ever thinking about the consequences,” he says.
Chilien, a real estate agent, has been collecting trash for two months.
“It’s not cool to watch TikTok or Instagram all day. I want my children to learn something about the protection of the environment,” says the mother of two, who volunteers with her teenage daughters.The Trash Heroes also organise beach walks with kindergarten classes.
“The kids love it,” says Maja, stressing that education is the key and that change will only come from the children.
But then comes the next problem, namely the poorly functioning waste disposal system. No one seems to know exactly where the rubbish ends up.
If you ask around, people tend to shrug their shoulders. You can find several private recycling organisations online that are active on Bali – but not enough, given the abundance of rubbish.
Local artist Ari Bayuaji does his own recycling, making works of art from old boat ropes collected on beaches and in mangrove forests. The ropes made of polyester and polypropylene sometimes virtually “grow together” with the roots of the mangroves, he says.
He has become so well known that fishermen bring him their discarded ropes, which he laboriously unravels into sewing thread. Using a traditional loom, he and other like-minded craftsmen then create cleverly designed wall hangings. He calls the project “Weaving the Ocean”.
“There are no big recycling plants in Bali, so it is best to reuse materials,” he says. “I didn’t want to let myself get frustrated by all the trash, so I preferred to start a project that creates beauty out of garbage.”
He also took a conscious decision not to design utilitarian objects such as curtains or tablecloths.
“Those will be thrown away eventually as well – but artworks will stay forever,” he says.
Bayuaji’s works have been shown in Singapore, Yogyakarta, Monchengladbach and Rotterdam, and in December he will exhibit some in Brussels. He is convinced that there will be no lack of supply of artificial fibres: “As long as there is fish in the ocean, we will never run out of the ropes.”
The Indonesian government, meanwhile, set itself ambitious targets years ago, aiming to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean by 70% by 2025. To achieve this, the authorities are now literally getting ordinary citizens on board.
In October, almost 1,500 fishermen took part in a clean-up initiative run by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Investment.
In 14 coastal regions, they removed around 67 tonnes of waste from the water in four weeks, and didn’t go home empty handed for their efforts either: “One kilo of plastic waste is paid the same as one kilo of fish. So that our fishermen are not suffering while they are cleaning the sea.” – dpa