Swimming among Bali's plastic tide
"If Bali doesn't #Dosomething serious about this pollution it'll be impossible to surf here in a few years. Worst I've ever seen". - Kelly Slater on Twitter.
There are two seasons on Bali and they’re not the ones you know of - the wet season and the dry season. The popular island can now split its calendar into the tourist season and the trash season (Yes, I know, ‘rubbish season’ but alliteration trumps patriotism here).
From April to November the south-west swells are unrelenting, and the south-east trades blow each day making for groomed perfection on Bali’s southern reef breaks. And it’s not only surfers who flock there; the clear weather and lack of rain also attract hordes of non-surfing tourists to Bali during those months.
However, from December to March the winds reverse blowing from Java towards Bali, heavy rainfall swells the rivers, and each day the Balinese wake to tonnes of plastic debris on their beaches.
Four Javanese rivers are listed in the global top 20 of plastic-polluted waterways. Yet not all the blame can be shifted to Bali’s next door neighbour; coming down Bali’s rivers are single-use plastic cups, food packaging, and plastic bottles.
Indonesia is one of the world's worst contributors of plastic pollution into the ocean, with an estimated 200,000 tonnes of plastic washing into the ocean each year. That equates to 16% of the global total according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications. By comparison Indonesia comprises just 3% of the world’s population.
The gross disproportion is a structural problem. Single-use plastic is now a part of daily life in Indonesia, yet there’s no infrastructure to deal with it, no bins, recycling or waste removal, nor education campaigns to attack the root cause of the problem. And all efforts to tackle it have fizzled out.
In December 2014, the governor of Bali announced that the island would be “plastic bag free by 2018”. But follow-up action has been slow, partly due to confusion about which level of government should act first.
In 2016, the Indonesian government tried to reduce plastic use by introducing a tax of Rp 200 (2 cents) on single-use plastic bags. Critics lamented the additional charge was not high enough and that there should be more transparency in how the tax revenue would be used. Six months after its introduction, the Indonesian retailers association decided to stop the program altogether, citing lack of legal grounds to charge the bags.
In March last year the Indonesian government pledged to spend up to $1 billion a year to clean up its seas. Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs in Indonesia, spoke at a World Oceans Summit - held on Bali - and said the country would seek to reduce plastic pollution by 75 per cent by 2025. However, earlier efforts don't instill confidence.
Meanwhile, the rubbish builds up on Bali’s beaches during the wet months. Without government intervention the problem shifts to the tourist industry. Without clean beaches they’re the ones who will suffer financially.
And so each morning teams such as the Housekeeping Workers Association of Legian Hotels fan out across the beaches from Kuta to Seminyak. The Association sends out 100 workers per day who join many other volunteers on a job that is never fully done. Not, at least, till the dry season begins once more, the rivers subside and the south-east winds blow the plastic back to Java again.