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.

Indira 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 cook.

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, pre-COVID19.

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.

“And 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.

“Separating 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.

“Before, 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 brainer.

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 Economics.

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 Uluwatu. 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 double-sided.

“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 education.”

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

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.

– Additional research Elijah Johnston


Paige Leacey

Paige Leacey is an Australian writer, poet, creative and deep thinker. She runs her own copywriting agency, Squawk Content, where she specialises in helping entrepreneurs find the most meaningful words to express their ideas. When she isn’t working with clients, she is writing essays about sticky things – fear, shame, sadness, intimacy, sex, connection and relationships. Paige also has a background in radio and podcasting – watch this space – where she takes a more humourous approach to musing about the hard subjects. Paige is a bush enthusiast, speaks fairly fluent Indonesian, likes her lattes extra hot (regardless of the weather), hates wearing clothes (regardless of the weather) and is usually her signature 20 minutes late for everything.