Indonesia and its? problem with garbage

Indonesia, the second country in the world that throws more plastics into the sea. Figures, figures are, but this reality is the sum of many factors. Factors such as those we were able to discover, first-hand, during our journey through Indonesia: an ecosystem as wonderful as it is in danger of collapsing.

Viendo basura en la playa de Gili Air (Indonesia)

Viendo basura en la playa de Gili Air (Indonesia)

First of all, I would like to clarify that this is NOT a journalistic article resulting from hours of research and analysis. This posts is the summary of a sustainable tourism project that we carried out during our trip to Indonesia: #labasuranodalikes. A project that you can see summarized in this video.

To locate the seed of this initiative, it would be necessary to go back to November 2018 in Barcelona, date in which the airline KLM organized an event of responsible tourism. There we were summoned several bloggers to talk about this matter, an opportunity I took to show my concern that the “influencers” and generators of travel content were limited only to share the pretty face of the destinations visited, ignoring, on many occasions, realities not so pleasant as overcrowding or garbage.

Sergio Otegui, autor del blog Nada Incluido, habla en las charlas KLMvuelasostenible en BarcelonaSergio Otegui, autor del blog Nada Incluido, habla en las charlas KLMvuelasostenible en BarcelonaClick on the photo to see my presentation at the KLMvuelasosetenible in Barcelona

That talk under the title “La basura no da likes?”, would become a solid project with the participation of Alberto Menéndez (Mochileros TV) and Javier Godínez (Viaja, disfruta y ayuda), two bloggers with a great sustainable conscience to whom I have a great personal relationship. With them in the team, the project went from seed to tree in no time, and Indonesia would be the destination chosen to plant it.

Index of contents

Why Indonesia?

There are many reasons that led us to Indonesia, but especially the fact that it combined a huge tourist potential with a big problem: garbage. According to Science magazine, after China, Indonesia is the country in the world that throws more plastic into the sea, among other waste.

The huge waste problem that the country lives with is no coincidence: it is the sum of many things. It would be very pretentious on my part to try to explain this problem as if I had been researching and studying it in depth for years, but there are several keys that gave us the journey itself:

1. Overpopulation

With more than 260 million inhabitants, Indonesia is ranked as the fourth most populous country in the world, a position not fully coordinated with its size: the fifteenth in surface area, with an area of about 2 million square kilometers (four times Spain). That is to say, in Indonesia many people live in not too much space, with all that this entails. Especially in Java, the most populated island in the world.

Ofrenda en el templo del Pura Besakhi (Bali, Indonesia)

Ofrenda en el templo del Pura Besakhi (Bali, Indonesia)

2. Waste management problem

It is estimated that 30% of the waste generated by cities and 60% of rural areas is NOT treated. In other words, a very high percentage of the garbage generated by the country is out of control.

3. Lack of environmental awareness

Although, as I will tell you later, there are many institutions that work to raise Indonesians’ awareness from school, a good part of this population has never received training in this regard, and they are truly unaware of the consequences of their actions. So much so that, in the past, it was common to wrap food and other products in natural, disposable containers, such as banana leaf. Containers that, once fulfilled their function, were thrown in any place without any consequence for nature. But today those containers have been replaced by plastic, and many Indonesians continue to throw it on the ground as if it were the old banana leaf.

4. Plastic for everything and for everyone

In close connection with the above is the fact that plastic is everywhere. It is almost impossible to make a purchase in this country free of plastic, even if you look for it, so if you do not have any concerns in this regard the consumption can be massive.

Tienda con todo productos envueltos en plástico en Ubud (Bali, Indonesia)

Tienda con todo productos envueltos en plástico en Ubud (Bali, Indonesia)

5. It’s an archipelago.

It may seem silly, but it should be noted at this point that Indonesia is an archipelago, so the rubbish that roams its seas and reaches its shores is not just yours: it can come through currents from anywhere in the world. It is important not to forget that the plastic bag you use in Spain pollutes as much as the one they use there, and that both can end up in the same place. And if not, take a look at the crazy story of these rubber ducklings.

6. Tourism

It would be very irresponsible to speak of the Indonesian problem as if it were your own and that is it, and to ignore the fact that tourism is one of the factors most influencing this direction. As an example, it is enough to ask why Bali, with 4.5 million inhabitants, generates more garbage than the capital Jakarta, with 12 million inhabitants. The answer: Bali is Indonesia’s most popular tourist destination, accounting for 40% of the country’s visitors. So tourism and garbage seem to be closely connected.

Ritual de purificación en Pura Tirta Empul (Bali, Indonesia)

Ritual de purificación en Pura Tirta Empul (Bali, Indonesia)

I thought it was important to clarify all this before explaining what our project consisted of. And if there is one thing I learned on this trip above anything else, it is that Indonesia does NOT have a problem: we all have the problem.

What would be our job during the trip?

Although none of us knew exactly what we were up against when we got off the plane, we were clear about our mission during the trip. And on it we would consolidate all our movements:

A) Tourism

Although trash was the main guide we followed on our trip, we did not want to leave aside our tourist concerns, so the trip was also going to be an opportunity to discover a unique country. But with one difference.

En el templo Borobudur (Java, Indonesia)

En el templo Borobudur (Java, Indonesia)

B) Communication

In Indonesia we weren’t going to pick up trash, but we weren’t going to turn our backs on him if he showed up on our way. Both in the blog and in our networks with the hashtag (#labasuranodalikes), there would be as much space for the wonders of the country as for its problem with garbage, but also for all those people who fight to combat this situation. The three of us were clear that, beyond what we could do there with our hands, the greatest effect we could achieve would be to share in our projects, in whatever format, what happened, helping ourselves to generate greater awareness. But there would still be something else.

C) Action

And yes, although it was clear to us that the greatest impact would be generated by communicating it, we did not want to go through the country talking about this problem without trying to contribute, in situ, our grain of sand, no matter how small. For this reason, we dedicate several days of our trip to cleaning work, both collaborating with other institutions and on our own.

D) Invite to action

Connecting the three points above, one of our main efforts on the journey and then would come in encouraging all our readers, by whatever means, to travel (and live) with a more sustainable conscience, inviting everyone to collaborate actively with the reality and problems of their environment and the places they visit. For this we would seek the support of other members of the blogging community, to spread the message also with their followers. In this way, with everyone’s arrope, it will be easier to generate a sustainable awareness among travelers that can help improve the destinations we visit.

Hablando sobre #Labasuranodalikes en el Travelbloggers Meeting celebrado en Poitiers (Francia)

Hablando sobre #Labasuranodalikes en el Travelbloggers Meeting celebrado en Poitiers (Francia)

Indonesia seeks solutions

Another of the great lessons that this trip would give us is that, yes, Indonesia is part of the problem, but it is also one of the big losers and, above all, one of the main stakeholders in solving it. If something surprised all three of us, it is the number of initiatives, of lesser or greater entity, that work to remedy it. It is exciting to see so many projects working in this direction, some of which invited us to collaborate:

Rear Hero – Zero Waste

Although a Swiss head is behind Trash Hero, in 2013 Thailand would be the place where this international non-profit organisation would take its first steps. Today, 6 years later, some 150 initiatives in more than 10 countries are working piecemeal to make the world a cleaner place. Under the slogan “We clean, we change, we educate”, the volunteers of Trash Hero collaborate in the cleaning of cities and natural places and give talks in schools to try to raise awareness among children.

An international network whose functioning we could see in Bali, where we accompanied the president of Trash Hero Indonesia, Wayan Aksara, in some of these activities. It is impressive to see the selfless effort of so many volunteers to try to improve their surroundings, especially local people.

Trash Hero en acción en la playa de Saba, en Bali (Indonesia)

Trash Hero en acción en la playa de Saba, en Bali (Indonesia)

Dive Gili Air Blanket

Many species and ecosystems are affected by human activity, but coral is one of the most harmed. So much so that it is estimated that by 2050 this species could become extinct in the world, with its consequent consequences. In addition to global warming, fishing, aerosols and other factors, garbage directly influences coral development, mainly because it “blocks the process of photosynthesis,” as Dillon Carpenter, head of the biorock project at the Manta Dive Gili Air diving school, told us. The biorock is a global coral regeneration initiative that also has its space in the Gili Islands, one of Indonesia’s regular tourist destinations. In order to understand each other, it could be said that the biorock tries to favour the development of the coral by installing under the sea some metallic structures optimized for it.

Proyecto biorock: regeneración de coral en islas Gili (Indonesia)

Proyecto biorock: regeneración de coral en islas Gili (Indonesia)

In the words of the aforementioned Dillon, if the growth of a healthy and strong coral can take about ten years, thanks to biorock the process is reduced to 3. A very interesting idea that we wanted to know first hand from the moment we heard it.

Coral las aguas del parque nacional de Komodo (Indonesia)

Coral las aguas del parque nacional de Komodo (Indonesia)

Plastic Bank

But beyond global actions of different magnitudes, one of the greatest efforts we can make in this regard is to try to change the consumption and recycling habits of each. And with this idea are born the “Plastic Banks”, a public and private initiative that economically rewards the citizens who separate plastic.

Funcionamiento de un banco de plastico

Funcionamiento de un banco de plastico

How does a plastic bench work? Source: plasticbank.com

At different points in different localities of Indonesia, it is possible to find these garbage banks that pay you, more or less, by virtue of the amount and type of plastic you bring it. Many families have found in these banks some financial support to cope with their day to day, becoming aware along the way of the importance of recycling. By chance of the trip, we could see one in action in Yogyakarta.

Other anonymous heroes

But as I commented above, if anything caught our attention on this trip is that, whether we looked for it or not, many anonymous heroes crossed our path and work day by day to combat this problem. Citizens’ initiatives of various sizes that did nothing more than show us the great interest that Indonesians have in improving this situation.

Plantas en botellas en las calles de Yogyakarta (Java, Indonesia)

Plantas en botellas en las calles de Yogyakarta (Java, Indonesia)

And what is the Indonesian government doing?

Another lesson we learned from this adventure is that, no matter how much citizen effort there is in this direction, it is of little use if above all there is no structural and firm support from the political powers. And in the case of Indonesia it is hard to guess to what extent this is the case.

Mono en un papelera junto al Monkey Forest de Ubud (Bali, Indonesia)

Mono en un papelera junto al Monkey Forest de Ubud (Bali, Indonesia)

It goes without saying that I do not have the right level of information about the government’s efforts on waste issues, but the general feeling we came back with is that, at least, there is interest. According to the news, Indonesia has proposed to reduce by 70% the emission of plastics to the sea by 2025. Among other things, it is evident that the government is conducting a (light) environmental education campaign for the Indonesian people. Along our route, we did see more than one sign inviting citizens to recycle and separate waste. Or even fine those who make a mess.

Un cartel prohibe tirar basura en Labuan Bajo, en la isla de Flores de Indonesia

Un cartel prohibe tirar basura en Labuan Bajo, en la isla de Flores de Indonesia

On the other hand, some of the institutions like the ones we collaborate with (Trash Hero, for example), told us that they were receiving a lot of support from the government, so it is understood that the interest goes beyond their own affairs. Now, is this enough? The feeling that this issue left us all is that, no matter how many cleaning and recycling initiatives are carried out in the country, the solution has to come from before: we have to reduce the generation of waste, especially plastics. In order to do this, governments have to take drastic decisions, measures that facilitate the daily life of citizens in this sense and that penalise, not least, the large institutions that are not responsible for their environmental impact. Although it would be unfair to apply this discourse only in Indonesia: we could extend it to almost any country in the world.

Dos chicos reciclando botellas en Labuan Bajo, isla de Flores (Indonesia)

Dos chicos reciclando botellas en Labuan Bajo, isla de Flores (Indonesia)

And you, are you a responsible citizen?

If you’ve come this far, it’s clear that at least you’re interested in the subject, and that’s the starting point for any change. As I have already said, global change begins with ourselves. And I’m not saying it as a motivational phrase to share in networks, I’m saying it because I really think about it. So much so that when I returned from my trip to Indonesia I found my refrigerator full of containers and other disposable products. An ordinary fridge in which you are not aware of the impact that your consumption habits have on the world. And it was such an impression that it gave me after a trip so today, a few months later, I can proudly say that I have changed my shopping basket quite a bit. No, I have not stopped using plastic or other short-lived packaging, but I have reduced it a lot and I think about it a lot before buying certain types of products.

Recogiendo basura del mar en islas Gili (Indonesia)

Recogiendo basura del mar en islas Gili (Indonesia)

The same goes for the issue of cleanliness: you don’t have to go to Indonesia to clean up beaches and national parks. Unfortunately, garbage is something typical of all cultures and countries, so we also have to take care of our immediate environment. As my dear friend and blogger Maruxaina says, to be a responsible tourist, you first have to be a responsible person, and there is a lot to be done in that direction.

Un grafiti de una tutora comiendo una bolsa de plástico (Essaouira, Marruecos)

Un grafiti de una tutora comiendo una bolsa de plástico (Essaouira, Marruecos)

But then, garbage doesn’t give likes?

To close the post more or less where we started, I would like to reflect on the impact of what we did and continue to do. The starting point with which this project was born was to ask ourselves why it costs us content generators so much to share negative aspects of travel, aspects such as garbage. Although everyone will have their own reason for not doing so, I am sure that one of the most widespread is the little interaction that this type of content usually generates in networks. But doesn’t garbage really give likes?

Basura en el puerto de Padangbai (Bali, Indonesia)

Basura en el puerto de Padangbai (Bali, Indonesia)

Judging by our project, the reality is that garbage can also give likes as long as it communicates with frequency and proper determination. In our case, the content, in general, worked quite well, and this is especially due to two reasons:

Prepare your community for what’s coming: from the moment we took the plane, we wanted to make it clear to our followers what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, so no one was surprised. This way of approaching the trip aroused a special interest and sensitivity on the part of our followers, so the interaction was good from the first moment.

Labasuranodalikes en la playa Rosa del Parque Nacional de Komodo de Indonesia

Labasuranodalikes en la playa Rosa del Parque Nacional de Komodo de Indonesia

Photo by Javier Godínez

The support of the blogging community: in the same way, the reception of the project from day one by the blogging community made our message reach outside our circle of influence, which ended up arousing the interest of a different public than usual. From here, I take this opportunity to give a thousand thanks to all the blogging friends who helped us get further from this message and share again the video if you want to help us get a little further.

Although in this post I have focused on the case of Indonesia, the idea of this project is to replicate this way of traveling in other destinations, especially those where they drown in this problem. I’m the first one to work a lot to make this travel website, to make it grow every day, to make it end up being my main source of income. However, I am more and more aligned with taking advantage of the blog to bring more elaborate messages to this community that supports me so much. Because if our job is to travel the world and tell it, why don’t we start by making the world a better place?

See all posts about Indonesia.

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