Waste Management in Bali, Indonesia

2010-2011 David Bird International Fellow Aran Wiener ’09
Excerpts from his final report

After 42 hours of suspended animation in three flights and multiple airports, I arrived on the island of Bali with one piece of luggage, two days of planned itinerary, and an ocean of possibilities to navigate. After a day decompressing on the beach I quickly relocated to the idyllic confines of Ubud, perched mid slope between the coast and the towering volcanoes among some of the most beautiful rice paddies on the island. This would be my home for my first ten days where I immersed myself in Balinese language studies, culture and religious readings, and began to map out the rest of my service project.Bali fountain

[I had] coordinated a trip to the village of Sudaji, long prized for its soil fertility and agricultural bounty, on the northern slope of the island where I was to meet with one of the village’s prodigal sons who had recently returned from years working in the tourism industry to transform his homeland. With that introduction we set off for a two-day visit to what would become my client, my project, and a place I have grown to love.

The thought of Bali conjures many idyllic images, sounds, tastes, and emotions. Most of these pale in comparison to the reality of this enchanted place. What one typically does not visualize is the volume and omnipresence of visible garbage. Household waste litters streets, chokes streams, fouls beaches, and sadly, is as much a part of the Bali landscape as rice paddies and temples. Like the west, Balinese commerce is literally wrapped in plastic.

Where once foodstuff, textiles, building materials and clothing derived solely from biodegradable sources, plastic now dominates. Without the modern mechanisms of waste management we take for granted, the end of the line for these materials is usually right outside the store where the plastic water bottles are purchased, or out the window of a moving car, or behind the kitchen. While it offers no excuse, a common explanation from the Balinese is that until recently, waste could be dropped on the ground and expected to decompose. While the source of the waste is now different, the habit has remained.

Within the first hour of meeting KS Zan Zan, sipping red rice tea inside a bamboo hut, I was awed by the personal drive of one of Bali’s emerging green ambassadors. I was honored to be folded into the mission Zan Zan has for his ancestral village.

Zan Zan has built the first steps in establishing the village of Sudaji as an eco-tourism destination. Boasting an impressive combination of natural beauty, small-scale traditional farming, unique arts and culture, and one of the tallest waterfalls on the island, this village could be the poster child for a new face of tourism. Currently not marked on most maps, this village of 30,000 people offers an unparalleled portal into Balinese culture, agrarian village life-style, and nature.

I was now facing a three week service project that boiled down to waste management. I blocked out two weeks to immerse myself in observation and data collection in the village. After our morning forays I would return to the same places on foot or on motorbike and record data. I used a GPS to track my movements along a given road, trail, or watercourse and recorded observations and data in a notebook.

Garbage receptacles are nearly non-existent. Refuse is carried by wind or water to the lowest point in the landscape, which in Bali is always a waterway. Plastic waste is carried along fast moving channels until it is deposited in the slowest moving waters in the cultivated fields and orchards. Plastic refuse chokes the fertile soils along irrigation spillways and is found throughout the level pools of the paddies.

Armed with these data and coalesced into several maps and a narrative about the potential of Sudaji and the obstacles in its path, I returned to the village for a final presentation two days before leaving the island. This impromptu meeting, organized by Zan Zan, exceeded my wildest expectations. Foue weeks prior, I had no semblance of a project, and now I was seated in a place of honor in a ceremonial circular bamboo pavilion awaiting scores of school children, parents, neighbors, village officials, Subak members, and the village chief.

I was not aware that this meeting would be so well attended. Approximately fifty people gathered to hear each official provide lengthy statements about the village, the plastic problem, and the status of Sudaji. Dressed in traditional Balinese Sarong and Destar head garment, I opened the presentation with introductory remarks in my best broken Bahasa Indonesian as an ice breaker.

It was uncomfortable for me as an outside to preach to these villagers so I left some of the sermonizing to Zan Zan who gave an impassioned speech to the children after I was finished.Sudaji presentation

After the presentation, I sat around drinking tea with Zan Zan, [Conway alum] Gove DePuy, and the public officials. Many solutions were discussed ranging from incentivizing creative reuse of plastic, to providing reusable shopping bags, landfill options, and lastly high temperature incineration. There currently exists one recycling station on Bali, on the other side of the island, which collects recyclables and trucks them to boats taking them to Java.

Perhaps Sudaji can find a solution for this growing global dilemma by harnessing the ingenuity and community strength of its own population.

This experience extends well beyond professional development and has truly touched me.

Terimah kasih!