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Bali looks to turn the tide on Indonesia’s plastic waste

Denpasar, Indonesia – It’s not even 7am and hundreds of men and women are walking up and down Bali’s western coast, grabbing all the rubbish they can find.

Large excavators and trucks fitted with giant rakes follow behind, sweeping everything into massive heaps of bottles, bags, snack wrappers – and even used nappies. The 20km stretch between Kuta and Canggu is one of the Indonesian holiday island’s most popular tourist beaches. 

“We come out here every day during the wet season,” a truck driver employed like the rest of the crew by the local government told Al Jazeera as he waited for his turn to collect the refuse. “We keep coming back until all the rubbish is gone. Sometimes each truck comes back three times per day, even though there are tens of trucks in use.”

Hours later, the coast looks clean again, with beachgoers relaxing under the sun.

But along the shoreline, plastic debris floats in on every wave.

Discarded straws and instant noodle packets swirl around tourists’ feet, many of whom ignore the rubbish and continue to swim, surf and sunbathe.

A video of a British man swimming among reams of plastic rubbish in the ocean off Bali went viral in early 2018, shocking both Indonesians and foreigners alike. While many people on the island knew the situation was bad, they had not realised the scale of the problem.

Indonesia is the world’s second-largest producer of plastic waste after China, contributing 3.2 million tonnes annually, according to research published in Science Journal in 2015.

Almost everything Indonesians buy comes wrapped in plastic or is placed into a plastic bag whether at a small roadside stall, a traditional market, a restaurant or a high-end boutique. The vast archipelago aims to reduce plastic waste by 70 percent by the year 2025.

A plastic bag washed up on the shoreline of a beach on Bali’s southwest coast. [Kate Walton/Al Jazeera]. [Al Jazeera]

Discarded or burned

Some Indonesians are deeply concerned, including Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti. “If we don’t solve this problem by 2030, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish,” she said at an event at her office in December 2018. “We must reduce our use of plastic.”

As many as 10 million new plastic bags enter circulation every day across Indonesia; a statistic that prompted the authorities in Bali to announce measures to outlaw plastic bags, plastic straws and styrofoam. A ban in Bali’s capital city, Denpasar, is already in force, while vendors across the island have until the beginning of July to comply.

“Much of the marine plastic litter in Indonesia originates from land-based sources,” said Thomas Wright, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, whose research focuses on plastic waste in Indonesia.

“If a household does not have access to a recycling plant or waste collection services, household waste – including plastic – is discarded in a river or burned.”

Throwing the plastic away is a problem because it kills marine life, clogs waterways and leaks poisonous substances, Wright said, noting the additional risk raised by microplastics, which “attract and store toxins, making some plastic litter potentially carcinogenic”.

Many supermarkets, restaurants and shops in Bali – home to more than four million people and Indonesia’s main tourism hub attracting millions of foreign visitors annually – are already implementing the ban.

Cashiers at Bintang Supermarket in Seminyak told Al Jazeera they stopped giving out plastic bags to customers on January 1, although small bags would still be available until the stock ran out. “Many customers complain because they are not prepared with their own reusable bag,” one cashier said, laughing.

Up the road at Ultimo, one of the upmarket resort’s most popular restaurants, manager Arsinka Gede said they had also banned single-use plastics. “We’ve been using paper straws since the start of 2019,” Gede said. “It’s important for us because Bali is a tourist spot known for being beautiful. If Bali is not clean, not beautiful, the tourists just won’t come.”

Rubbish-filled plastic bags discarded on a street in Bali. Indonesia’s most popular resort island is banning the use of single-use plastics. [Kate Walton/Al Jazeera]

Giant dump

Wright points out that although the government-led ban is an important step and will certainly have a significant effect on the amount of plastic waste produced on the island, there is an urgent need to implement sustainable rubbish collection services and management facilities.

The rubbish from southern Bali’s beaches and waterways ends up at the Suwung Waste Processing Plant, a 32-hectare landfill near Sanur, another tourist area on the eastern coast where trash pickers sift through the stinking mountain of waste accompanied by birds, wild cows and pigs.

The local government is planning to develop a 10-hectare waste-to-energy generator at the site by 2021 and convert the remainder of the space into an ecopark.

“[Reducing plastic in Bali] is not so much a technical challenge, but a social challenge of adoption, dedication and changing habits,” Wright said. “Plastic litter is a massive challenge and it will take years of dedicated effort to address it. Seeing the change that has taken place in Indonesia just in the last two years is amazing, and I am positive that if these efforts persist and develop a new norm, Indonesia can become a role model for positive change.”

When asked if they supported the plastic ban, the truck driver and his colleagues were enthusiastic. “Yes, we support the ban,” he said, explaining it was good for the environment.

Aren’t they worried about their jobs?

“No,” he laughs, shaking his head. “We aren’t worried. There will always be lots of rubbish.”