Why you should care
Because this is the dirty reality of a paradise fantasy.
Welcome to beautiful Bali, where sun-dappled beaches and iridescent blue waters flow freely. While you’re here, take a deep-sea dive into the heaps of trash that float just offshore. Or sunbathe amid the piles of plastic waste on the island’s sullied sands. Ahhh.
The glittery “Island of Love” fairy tale of Indonesia’s Bali is a beloved one. But the lore among locals is that this fantasy is all rubbish. They’re talking actual trash — garbage with filthy, noxious fumes. According to the Bali Environmental Agency,
680 cubic meters
of plastic garbage are generated every day.
That’s the equivalent of a six-story building, folks. Forget the Shangri-la of Indonesia; Bali is a “paradise lost,” awash in a sea of litter, say Bali natives Melati Wijsen, 14, and Isabel Wijsen, 12, in their brand-new TED talk. Every year, some 3 million newlyweds, deep-sea divers and backpackers flock to Bali to sunbathe, snorkel and dive, eagerly hoping to glimpse exotic sea creatures (Babe, I found Nemo!). But today, they might peer through the water and just see a crumpled Snickers wrapper or a dented Coca-Cola can. Ironically, the island’s sanitation infrastructure drags lazily behind its booming tourism industry.
Trash is a buzzkill for tropical honeymooners, says garbageman extraordinaire Olivier Pouillon, but Bali is “reaching a tipping point.” Known as the “professional trash talker” of Bali, Pouillon runs Bali Recycling, one of the few companies that manages and recycles waste on the island. To keep pace with Bali’s fast-growing economy, he says, the local government put most of its eggs in the tourism basket, while less sexy services like waste management got pushed aside to “play catch up.” A whopping 75 percent of trash is not collected by the government, and the piles of junk have added up, compared with 30 years ago, when the majority of waste was biodegradable. Now, a plastic bottle that was thrown onto the roadside decades ago still sits there, says Pouillon. And it’ll keep sitting — for the 450 years a plastic bottle needs to decay. During the whipping winds of monsoon season, the mountains of trash in Bali get so high that the army has to swoop in and clean up the mess.
As it turns out, greater Indonesia is one of the world’s leading quiet yet dirty culprits of chucked trash. According to an exhaustive data analysis at the University of Georgia, the nation’s yearly 3.22 million metric tons of mishandled plastic waste clocked in at No. 2 on a list of the world’s countries. The top spot went to China, but its population is five times greater than Indonesia’s 252.8 million. Says environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck, who led the University of Georgia study, “Waste should be put in its place,” not dumped in rivers, burned in front yards or tossed onto roads, as it is in Bali.
At the world-class beaches of Jimbaran Bay, a fleet of beach-cleaning machines rumble by lingering tourists at dusk, sifting the sand for plastic trash. One sporting the logo of the Coca-Cola Co. and a motto — “Keep the Beach Clean” — swiftly collects a discarded bottle that bears its namesake.