Indonesian Beauty & the Plastic Beast

Gerupuk Village, Lombok

We pass our boards upto the smiling face above and climb back aboard the colourful outrigger. The wooden ladder firmly stowed, Tarah hauls up the anchor, starts the excitable outboard and we make our way back across the shallow bay for breakfast. The first hours of each morning spent with one eye on the sun appearing over the hilled horizon and the other on the blue shadows undulating amongst the scattered lobster platforms. Our grinning instructor, Ono, interpreting each wave with a precision indicating a lifelong relationship with this sea. Sat on the boat with a satisfying exhaustion, enchanted by the seemingly pristine surroundings, without hesitation our guide flicks his Marlboro Red into the water.

Like many travellers who grew up in a sprawling city congested with traffic, people and an abundance of distractions, I reach a state of heightened calm when arriving somewhere far-flung, remote, disconnected. It’s people innocent from Western notions of how to live, love and work. I don’t crave extreme isolation, just that the extra day’s journey off the well beaten path is yet to let me down. On this occasion our first destination was Gerupuk, a small fishing village on the Southern coast of Lombok, Indonesia.

The village sits on the sheltered eastern side of a bay around a 20 minute drive from the main southerly town of Kuta. Picturesque is an under statement when describing the view — an empty golden beach lining the clear emerald water, fishing boats and their captains providing the only signs of movement, the back drop of empty green hills and the magnificent Mount Rinjani lying silently dormant, silhouetted in the distance. There’s construction teams working on the road through the village but for the time being it’s broken gravel and the route into Gerupuk is unmade, meaning there’s minimal background noise other than the occasional scooter horn. This won’t be the case for long as this area of Lombok is being prepped for further tourism; confirmed by the freshly laid markings and towering lamp posts lining the first section of road after the main turn-off. But for now, the village approach is a dusty track for 5 miles through farmland that demands particular attention when driving day or night. Meandering along a track like this you can’t help but feel like you’ve found one of those unbeaten paths, unfortunately there is a constant sight here which snaps you back to reality.

Dumped trash by the village entrance

Symptoms of a minimal waste infrastructure are unfortunately clear for all to see in many parts of the developing world and Lombok is no exception. Every road edge harvests discarded Yakult bottles, individual shampoo sachets, countless cigarette butts and plastic carrier bags that the foliage has fished from the breeze. It’s a truly sad state of affairs but unsurprising being that Indonesia is the world’s second largest contributor of plastic pollution (behind China). Combined with the estimation that 90% of the world’s ocean-bound waste is supplied by just 10 rivers, 8 of them in Asia, means that the seas around the world’s largest archipelago are at the epi-centre of this crisis.

Perhaps because I’m aware of this fact, I find it especially noticeable here how much this versatile material has infiltrated our lives. The task of avoiding single use plastics for a day is challenging enough in Western cities but here disposable products from water bottles to face wipes to plastic straws to polystyrene food containers, are not just rife but often complimentary. It’s hard to respect anything that has zero value attached to it and most tourists accept without hesitation. In a part of the world where dustbins are little more than a torn open cardboard box, once discarded this packaging simply ends up everywhere.

Slowly making its way downstream

The 8m metric tonnes that enter the oceans per year is the equivalent of every coastline globally being lined with people shoulder to shoulder and each of them chucking 5 full grocery bags into the water. It’s an intimidating and borderline unfathomable amount of material causing the typical sentiment given when discussing the subject to be “yeah its awful, but where do you start?!?”. This is a fair question so, where do you start with arguably the most pressing environmental issue we face? The answer I was given during our visit to the neighbouring island of Nusa Lembongan was “You just do it”.

Carmen from Zero Plastic Lembongan

Carmen Alfonso is one of the growing group of Westerners who fell in love with the region and wants to kick start a sustainability shift. “Thinking and speaking about it is a waste of time” she says, “as is waiting for the government to act”. Carmen left Spain after 15 years working as a lawyer, the burn-out she experienced pushing her to drift and travel the world for 6 years. During her time living in Bali she visited Lembongan (an islet near the southern coast) to dive and saw a school of filter-feeding Manta Rays surrounded by plastic waste. At this point she committed to staying and in a short time setup ‘Zero Plastic Lembongan’, a one-person initiative with the goal of cleaning up the island & educating locals and tourists to keep it that way.

Having seen little regard on either island for litter, I’ve been curious since arriving what the local people’s relationship is with the waste that’s present — do they turn a blind eye? Have no other option? Even notice it? Carmen’s view is that there’s little information about the implications of waste and so the common practice is to dump or burn it because they don’t know what else to do. And so information is where she’s started. Carmen’s gained support from the head of the village to distribute posters to streets, shops and warungs (restuarants) advocating refill & reuse schemes, such as refillmybottle, and bamboo drinking straws. The translation into Bahasa, English and Mandarin providing clarity for the majority of readers. Many local people now join her on the days she spends combing the beaches and mangroves for detritus.

The Head of Junkut Baru Village
Offering a cheaper alternative to disposable bottles

Carmen’s passion for this cause is infectious. “Being positive about this leads to positive interactions” she gives as a key reason for the progress she’s made in just 2 months. What’s been achieved is impressive to say the least but driving this cause solo means it’s one step at a time. Jungut Batu village is phase one, followed by Lembongan village with future plans to expand to the neighbouring islands of Cenigan and Nusa Penida. It’s as ambitious as it is inspiring but also achievable thanks to a wider network of purpose-driven people nearby offering advice & expertise. Organisations such as the R.O.L.E Foundation, The Green School, Indonesia Waste Platform, the IDEP Foundation, The Bali Clean & Green Program and Marine Megafauna Foundation are educating and collaborating to win this war and stem the flow of pollution entering their seas. Later this year will see The Bali Sustainability Hub launch — an online forum designed to facilitate simple sharing of information and a way to monitor their success on a macro scale. No doubt a great step forward for the region and a necessary one if they’re to successfully challenge a society-wide acceptance of fly-tipping.

Visiting the island’s landfill site, we saw how the literal mess is currently being managed. Stating the obvious, it wasn’t a pleasant sight. After taking some time for my senses to acclimatise we mention the word “plastic” to a friendly local couple sorting through the mounds of smoking refuse who point proudly at a pile of separated plastic bottles and said that this will head to Denpasar (Bali) for recycling. Carmen was less optimistic suggesting that the vast majority of it gets incinerated — the noxious chemical smell filling my airways seems to validate this.

The Lembongan landfill

It’s a hard sight to stomach, but one that would surely help contribute to a tangible shift in global thinking if witnessed more widely. The 40,000+ variations of plastic makes a universal recycling system impossibly hard to scale, but there are positives signs here of progress. A new recycling shredder has been in use for a year to repurpose the more valuable plastics back into feedstock, a system that will hopefully be developed and expanded following the $1bn per year that Indonesia has promised to curb ocean waste.

Visiting the dump and seeing human beings spending their days sifting through so much smouldering, toxic, every-day garbage was harrowing. I’m under no illusion that this isn’t tiny in comparison to the world’s mega landfills but on an island only covering 8 squared kilometres, it’s relative size and close proximity to the sea filled me with sadness, anger and everything in between. I’ve spent over a decade scuba diving, sporadically attempting to learn to surf and generally angling my travels to be near the water so my interest in this plight is personal and, considering the ramifications, surely it should be considered as such by all of us?

Sitting down in a local Warung for lunch at the beach later that day my post-dump sullen mood was lifted as one of Carmen’s reusable ZPL bamboo straws came with my tea. A vision of a circular future in the foreground, masking a backdrop of locals offloading a huge delivery of single-use water and Coke bottles.

A welcome sight

We’re blessed with being the most informed generation there’s ever been. Thanks to a huge amount of media attention over the last year you don’t need to be a scientist to realise that plastic pollution represents a colossal danger to the health of our oceans, the wildlife that relies on them and our own food supply. I consider myself a conscientious traveller — I always carrying a reusable bottle, coffee cup, canvas shopping bag and automatically tidy any litter produced by myself or others’. But as I write this with a Bic biro, my mozzy spray nearby and a lighter within reach its apparent that the ubiquity of plastic is such that manufacturers’ responsibility to offer alternatives must be evenly weighted to our responsibility as consumers. “Whilst people come here and buy these throw-away products, whilst there is a demand, the local businesses will continue to sell them”says Carmen. I agree. The judgment shouldn’t be aimed at the local population. Foreign income is vital here so when visiting these beautiful & fragile places its upto the visitors need to take a stand and vote with our money, demanding products that don’t damage the surroundings.

Lombok’s incredible southern coast

Sat back in front of the lush and rugged Lombok coast line at sunset I’m struck that there’s a paradox in seeing such natural places littered with trash and the huge manufactured buildings in Western cities towering above polished and tidied pavements. It’s an image that seems confused, muddled, wrong.

We left Lombok overwhelmed with its dream-like geography, amazed by the mind-boggling & fragile fauna on its reefs, delighted by each serving of sambal and enamoured with the people that made us feel so welcome in Gerupuk and beyond. It’s a breath-taking place I plan to visit many times. I just hope that when the inevitable development comes, they use the guidance & knowledge available to avoid the mistakes made to date.

Sunset across the bay

Whilst floating serenely in the morning surf, surrounded by faces beaming with delight as they crash repeatedly into the white water, Ono laughs and repeats the Lombok motto of “Never try, never know!”. It’s a slogan that fits well with this topic. There’s a misconception resulting from decades of being sold the disposable, convenience-without-guilt story that adopting a more sustainable lifestyle is just too hard. Simply put, it’s not. Like any habit, once you’re doing it, it quickly becomes the norm.

As we began our journey home we pass a Lembongan cemetery where bright umbrellas are used to shade each grave from the tropical sun. It’s a beautiful Hindu tradition that honours those that have come before. Now I just hope it’s time for an equal homage to future generations by taking that little extra effort to keep incredible places like this pristine.

I can do better. We all can. We have to.

It’s the ideas from small groups of people that change the world. I want to acknowledge the people that are coming enthusiastically from all walks of life to ignite grass-roots environmental movements like Carmen’s. If you know of any equally inspiring people from around the globe that are powered by purpose please get in touch!