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The Truth About Trash And The Fight To Save A Balinese Paradise




Bali is a radically different place today than it was before it became a tourist mecca. The explosion in interest has brought growth and jobs and a growing economy to one of the world’s poorer nations. But progress has also brought problems, in this case, trash. And a lot of it. Paige Leacey weighs in on the fight to protect the Balinese environment from the tourist hordes.S

Steve doesn’t like the new Apple ear pods. Too much radiation, he reckons.

It’s hard to hear him without headphones,
though. It’s hard to hear anything over the cacophony of coffee and capitalism
at a bustling cafe in Bali’s tourist precinct, Kuta. Instead, Steve takes his
“thinking soy latte” in a reusable cup to-go, and calls us back when he arrives
at the villa he owns conveniently down the road. As someone who now spends
their time almost exclusively in the realm of environmental activism, Steve is
used to a setback or two.

Kuta is a very different place to when Steve
first arrived, back in 1974. Spending 45 years in any one location allows a
person to see, first-hand, the kind of change most of us might only understand
in the abstract. But, along with the locals, Steve has learned to adapt.

“They have very little prima donna ego; the
Balinese. They were super accepting of
these foreign, alternate lifestyle travellers [who arrived in the 70s and 80s]and gave them amazing space to express themselves.

“That’s how Kuta really took off.”

Steve first heard about Bali – an
Indonesian-governed island located between the Pacific and Indian Oceans – from
two Americans he met in his hometown of Noosa Heads.

The American pair were your typical might-be-enlightened-or-could-just-be-cooked
70s flower children, who had surfaced in Oz after a jaunt through South East
Asia. They told Steve of a place with gnarly, yet uncrowded waves, unbelievable
local food, and its own mystical concept of time.

For a then 20-something-year-old, it was the
perfect excuse to ditch the textbooks for surfboards. So, naturally, Steve
dropped out of university and hopped straight on a Pan Am flight.

“When I first got
here there were about six Balinese surfers and we knew most of them; still
pretty tight with most of them… those who are still alive.”

By the early 80s, the island had begun to
attract more attention and the pace started to change. The seminal 70s surf
flick Morning of the Earth had put
Bali on the map as a destination for spotless waves, but eventually it wasn’t
just the surfers who sought out a slice of island reprieve.

Steve noticed a growing number of suitcases in the arrivals terminal in Denpasar Airport – Bali’s main and only commercial airstrip – distinct from the Aztec patterned hemp backpacks and board bags he was used to seeing hanging off travellers there.

Last waves of the day at Bingin, Bali. (IMAGE: Sue, Flickr)

The surfy-backpackers – “Puff the Magic
Dragon types”, he calls them, “singing folk songs up the back of the planes on
guitars and stuff” – had been exposed to other cultures and were appreciative,
without demanding Western luxuries. But the suitcases now? They were different.

“The suitcases
were there for a hard and fast, ‘Thank you, we want to have fun, where are the
bars? Where can we party?’”

But the suitcases brought in money. And with
more money, came more… stuff.

“I don’t recall much plastic in the beginning. Everything was fresh produce.”

Steve’s dedication was to Bali’s
ever-evolving ocean community and by the time the Berlin Wall had fallen
(1991), he had created ‘Surfer Girl’ – a women’s surf apparel label, which
helped carve out female surf culture in the 90s.

Yet as Bali’s oceans filled with surfer
girls, and the island rose in both popularity and accessibility, Steve noticed
something else….

There was also more trash.

and the Happy-Sads of Change

When Indira Santi’s
grandparents were growing up, each village had its own plot of land designated
for ‘waste’. This communal compost would absorb abandoned banana and coconut
leaves (in which all Balinese produce was wrapped pre-white colonisation), the
skins of other native fruits and any additional organic matter that was no
longer being eaten, worn or used as building materials. In the evenings the
community would gather, start a fire atop the compost and use the blaze to

Now, food comes wrapped in
plastic and Balinese village tradition isn’t quite what it used to be.

“My parent’s generation
still treat plastic rubbish the same as they did the leaves. It’s their habit,”
says Indira. “We also don’t use fire
to cook anymore so the plastic just stays there.”

Indira Santi is in her mid-20s.
She left the village in which she was raised, in Keramas, East Bali, to study
conservation and ecology at one of the island’s top universities, Udayana.

Now, she lives in Perth and,
as one of Indonesia’s national scholars, is completing her Masters in
International Relations at the University of Western Australia.

Despite her upbringing in a
small village with comparatively little power and connectivity, Indira has a
lens on life not too dissimilar from most other university-educated
millennials. She is interested in travel and social impact, and uses the word
‘project’ often in casual conversation.

But her drive to make change
in the world has been informed by witnessing the island on which she was born
transition further and further away from the culture in which she was raised.

Tourism has meant that
Indira’s home now supports 5.2 million visitors per year. This was, of course,

The price of land has risen
and foreign ownership now reigns supreme, particularly along Bali’s coastline.
Even though visitors are told to be mindful of religious offerings placed out
on the streets (canang sari) and respect the sacred rituals of the Balinese,
ceremony has begun to hold less of an appeal against the ever-present prospect
of making money.

“When I would have a
ceremony in my family temple, all of my neighbours and family would come to
help. But now it’s less.

we don’t have the confidence to ask them to come more often because we know
they are out working.”

Indira’s grandmother, Ibu Wayan Soklat, still lives in their local village and in around 2010 found herself a thriving side hustle. Ibu Soklat runs a small business making traditional Hindu offerings and selling them to community members who no longer have time to make them for themselves. Prior to Bali’s reconditioning for tourism, women in the village didn’t work.

A Balinese market, a backbone of the local economy. (IMAGE: Werner Bayer, Flickr)

Indira isn’t outraged by gentrification.
She feels a sense of empowerment for her people. But urban transformation isn’t
without its complexities, particularly where the environment is concerned.

“It’s like, now the women
are so busy with lots of jobs. They are making the offerings, cooking and
cleaning every day, and now working as well.

plastic from leaves, that’s the last thing on their minds.”

Another happy-but-sad nuance
of Bali’s development is that it has brought the subject of waste management to
the forefront of politics. The coastal areas of Bali, which already face
critical saltwater intrusion from the cascades of concrete being poured, are
providing tangible evidence for the need to find better development solutions.
And, quickly.

“Since tourism is the major interest
in Bali, economically, and people have started protesting, our government is
starting to think seriously about it.

it wasn’t affecting tourism, so nobody was thinking about it.”

The traditional philosophy
for life on Bali is Tri Hita Karana. These words translate to there
being three main reasons for prosperity on the island: Harmony with spirit,
harmony among humans, and harmony with nature. Indira has spent much of her
adulthood rethinking what progress is, and where it intersects with the native
beliefs of her people.

“Development for me is not
always about a modern lifestyle, it’s about how we can have a harmonious life
with the environment and continue moving forward.”

A dried up rice paddy, in Bali. (IMAGE: Hans Permana, Flickr)

Sean Nino and the Inconvenient Truths of Convenience

We might have gone to interview Sean Nino in
person if he hadn’t sprained his knee surfing the day prior. He directs his
housemate to fetch him a headset for our call, since his injury has
decommissioned him entirely from walking.

Sean, who is better known within his
community as Pak Nino, runs a sustainable design company called Mantra Bali. He
and his team of 15 work on large scale tourism properties to innovate solutions
for reducing energy and water consumption, as well as minimising the waste they
send to landfills in Bali.

In order to streamline the process of waste
management, the team partnered with local NGO, Bumi Sasmaya, and the councils
of several Balinese villages to start building what they call “material
management facilities.”

But, as with solving any systemic issue,
Nino’s team had to consider the stakeholders at every level. Their next
challenge became developing a program run by these facilities to collect the
materials for processing from residents and tourism vendors in the area. This
program was aptly named Merah Putih Hijau (‘Red White Green’ in Indonesian; MPH
for short).

Despite the intricacies and
science behind processing human-driven waste, the first line of defence is
simple: Its separation. MPH believes that keeping organics isolated from
non-organics at the source is the key to sustainability, and supplying their ‘partners’
with colour-coded bins makes this transaction at its most critical level a no

Nino tells us MPH is doing well.

“It works. It’s actually working. If we keep the materials separate from the beginning it becomes really easy to manage them.”

Nino was born in Bremen in Germany but lived
between Berlin, Ibiza, and California until he was seven-years-old. Then, his
parents moved his family to Bali where he went to school until he was 16 and
then moved back to Germany to finish his studies. There, he completed a
Bachelor of International Studies followed by a Masters in Sustainability

After a stint working for Rip Curl Asia, and
then later for the UN in policy design, Nino moved back to Bali at age 28 to
readdress the issues he was most passionate about on the island he had spent
most of his youth.

According to Nino’s research, over the past
decade, plastic consumption in Indonesia has rocketed from two kilos per person
per year to 20. While this pales in comparison to Australia and the U.S. –
where statistics now sit at 130 and 120 kilos of plastic per person per year,
respectively – Indonesia doesn’t have the foundation to support any
waste being generated at all.

“We have absolutely no infrastructure [in Bali]so materials are finding their way into the environment at a much more alarming rate.”

(IMAGE: Artem Beliaikin, Flickr)

Steve Palmer also knows about Merah Putih
Hijau. He knows about it because it may be the first sustainability system in
Indonesia to actually have a shot at making a change.

“MPH is an amazing system to copy, to
research, to tweak relative to specifics. It’s a working model that actually
works,” he says.

Following the success of his label, Surfer
Girl, Steve’s next undertaking was a not-for-profit called Project Clean
. The assignment was to capture all of the
sewage and waste from local vendors and run it through a bio-digester before eventually
diverting it into wastewater gardens. This would stop it from going into the
ocean and further polluting Bali’s ecosystem.

The project ran well for a few years, but
lost traction when politics came into play and too many of its constituents
wanted their say to be the final.

“It turned to
shit. Sadly.”

Even though MPH’s system runs well, the
problem Nino and his team face is incentivising property owners and companies
within its catchment to become “showcase partners” and normalise separation in
their own dwellings.

Nino has been lobbying to use Memorandums of Understanding and agreements at a village level to properly enforce the rules of separation in Bali, and give the power of change back to the people. And it’s slowly working. In August 2019, the government passed a governor’s decree that states every village has the right to set up their own working rules and guidelines for operation.

Stunning views at Temple Lodge, Pecatu, Bali, looking towards the famous Uluwatu surf breaks. (IMAGE: Sue, Flickr)

Nino believes the real inflection point will
happen when they have built 25 “inspiring and well maintained” waste management
facilities across Bali, using MPH’s program to collect,
sort, process, compost and recycle the local waste. His philosophy is

“Our education about materials then needs to
be linked to these infrastructures so that people can understand, see and touch
the new systems.

“It’s not just
words or concepts, but a physical infrastructure to give meaning to the

The irony is that this will
create an influx of jobs and income for locals in high density areas across

Nino uses the term ‘materials’ frequently
when he talks about waste. He believes the narrative at the junction of humans
and what they consider to be trash also needs to change.

“We need to have a conversation about the
value of materials and the technical capability of cycling those materials back
into the economy.”

In simpler terms, Nino believes we need to
get rid of the word ‘waste’ itself.

“If we get really
good at redesigning this process, then we can actually start talking about the
concept of ‘zero waste.’”

Meanwhile, Steve asserts that Project Clean Uluwatu is recoverable. The original piping and tanks are all still there and the system functions. In his opinion, all it needs is for its human-parts to fulfil their own roles and pay the project the right kind of attention to keep it running. That is to say, less complaining, more maintaining. An uncanny metaphor for our planet, at large.

Steve and the Hope for Humanity

Even in the sometimes grim face of his own
attempts to save the planet thus far, Steve Palmer remains hopeful.

He grips to a notion that if representatives
can learn to accept help from experts (like Nino and Indira) to enforce systems
that are simple (the operative word), and monetised (the reason anything gets
done in the 21st century) we’ll be on track to living in better communion with
our ecosystem.

He’s currently in the midst of constructing
The Earth Sustainability Hub: An online social network that connects people
with concrete and useful information on how to make environmentally conscious
choices, depending on their location.

Steve also believes that people must get
better acquainted with their priorities and needs. If humans are, by nature,
designers, creatives, innovators and problem-solvers, how can we make more
meaningful use of those abilities? How can we leverage our intelligence to
contribute, rather than just to consume, while we inhabit this earth?

The pathological construct that nature is
deaf and blind to us, or without any inherent sentience, denies the possibility
of a relationship. And perhaps at the intersection of intention and execution
there must be a real, perceived relationship at stake.

Suddenly, the phone call drops out. For a few
seconds all we can hear is the optimistic beep of the line trying to reconnect.

“Hello? Hello.”

“Oh, cool. We’re back on,” Steve jeers.

He’s used to a setback or two.


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