Friday, August 7, 2015

Trouble in Paradise : Bali's Garbage Problem

When someone mentions Bali, ideas of white sand beaches, coconut lined roadways and a mysterious island cultures come to mind.  You will find these aspects along the tourist trails of Kuta and Seminyak but when you go beyond the western-influenced bubble that exists, you will be in for a messy shock! 

Bali is a small Indonesian island just south of the equator.  It is a major tourist hub and is easily reached from many international destinations.  Many tourist flock to Bali for its exotic culture, surfing, adventure sports, and low costs.   The island has a relatively small population of only 4 million, which is remarkable considering the size of the reputation that the island has achieved.  

The holy water temple Sabatu, just north of Ubud in the town of Tampaksiring.  (One of my favourite temples)
Before the waves of tourists, Bali was a self-sufficient island where all materials were organic and biodegradable.  Dishes were banana leaves and utensils were non-existent.  With their organic packaging, they would simply throw the spent banana leaf into the forest or river and it would decompose.  As the western world descended on the island, so did plastic products.  Because there was little information about plastic and decomposition, the same would happen with bags, plates, bottles, and other products; they would all be thrown into the forest or irrigation system, clogging the rivers, and killing wildlife. 

Bali now has an estimated 8 million visitors a year.  That is double the population of the island!  With the large amount of tourists comes a large amount of plastic.  And where does it all go? 

Sadly, there are numerous illegal dump sites littered across the island in "discreet" areas like ravines and behind temples.  This garbage slowly makes its way down the rivers and irrigation canals, eventually ending up in the Indian ocean.  It is here, during rainy season when the tourists really notice the affects of Bali's garbage problem.  The garbage washes back onto the beach and covers the "pristine" holiday destination in a layer of plastic.  On some beaches the garbage is so dense that tourists are not returning, understandably!  

Also at Sabatu temple: Garbage floats down the "holy water" stream and into the irrigation canals.  It is a common site throughout the island.
In other parts of the Island, such as the spiritual capital of Ubud, garbage is burnt on the roadside outside of family compounds and villas.  The air is saturated with the smell of burnt plastic everywhere you go, and after a while you want nothing more than to leave the island for the sake of your health!

What is being done?

An overloaded truck of cardboard dives past our villa.  Cardboard (and other paper products) have become valuable recyclables.  Some local people will pick through your garbage and take what they want for resale, much like they do in Canada with metal and glass.

Recycling programs are now in place to educate the locals about waste disposal at about $10 a month.  The downside is that ten dollars is still too high of a price for most locals, and the service caters mainly to expatriates.  Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) work to educate the locals on these foreign methods, but it has quite a ways to go before recycling becomes a way of life.   It is in the process though, and things are starting to improve slowly, one plastic item at a time.  

Old fishing boats ready to be remade into furniture in the village of Petulu (central Bali)
Local artisans have discovered a market for upcycled boats, turning them into unique furniture pieces.  The bright colours and designs on each boat give each table, chair or shelf an interesting one-of-a-kind appearance that expats and tourists love.  By upcycling wooden boats, less forest is destroyed, and less garbage is left to decompose in the sun. 

Typical evening sunset in Ubud.  Who needs a TV when you have a tropical sky?

Even though Bali has problems with garbage, it is still a beautiful place to visit and it should be seen in person.  The culture, natural beauty and people will be there waiting for you with big smiles, and open heats. 


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