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Bali takes on plastic pollution

Maria Bakkalapulo Bali, Indonesia
August 31, 2018

With its stunning beaches, the Indonesian island of Bali draws tourists from around the world. But plastics are spoiling the view, spurring locals to take action — from production to disposal.

Bali Plastik
Image: DW/N. Macaulay

The sun is rising over Bali's Saba beach and dozens of people have gathered in yellow t-shits emblazoned with the words, "I am a Trash Hero." Within an hour, they have collected a dumpster's worth of waste. Over a megaphone, Wayan Akasar encourages and thanks the volunteers. Akasar is the chairman of Trash Hero Indonesia, a community group with 38 chapters across the country, 14 of them in Bali.

A professional tour guide, Akasar loves showing visitors from around the world Bali's stunning rice-paddies and dramatic volcanic black sand beaches. But when they began complaining about the island's waste problem, he felt compelled to take action.

Trash Hero Wayan Aksara, Trash Hero, bali, Indonesia
Trash Hero Wayan Aksara, determined to clean up Bali's beachesImage: DW/N. Macaulay

Now he coordinates weekly cleanup events via social media, that have seen volunteers collect over 15,000 kilos of plastic trash in a year.

Earlier this year, a video of a British diver navigating a nightmarish soup of plastic bags and food wrappers off the coast of Bali went viral, sparking calls for action to tackle ocean pollution.

Indonesia is the world's second-largest source of marine plastic waste after China. The country used an astounding 9.8 billion plastic bags in 2016 alone. Many of them end up in rivers and the ocean — marring the island's idyllic vistas. Seeing a threat to its tourism industry, Indonesia has committed to cutting plastic waste by 70 percent by 2025.

Read more: Indonesia combines Islam with environmental activism

Recycle, recycle, recycle

Akasar knows his Trash Heroes are just part of the solution – ideally plastic waste should never get into the environment in the first place. "It's more important that we educate the people on how to deal with their trash and not use plastic," he says. "Step by step, we try to inspire people and hope they will help keep Bali clean for the future."

Bali fights plastic garbage with mass cleanup

The volunteers' work on Saba beach done, Akasar drives over to see his friend Nyoman Adi Artana at his plastic waste plant, where a hydraulic press crushes 5,000 bottles into approximately 1 cubic meter, weighing up to 140 kilos. An average day's work processes three truck-loads, around 1,600 kilograms, which are sent for recycling on goods trucks that would otherwise return empty to Java.

Each bale earns the plant around $4. "There is not a lot of money to make this kind of thing. Plastic is not a sexy business," Adi Artana says. Too often, you see people throwing trash into rivers or burning plastic on the side of the road. Nyoman Adi Artana wants to set a better example, getting more and more people to recycle plastics after use.

Read more: Plastic bottle recycling champion: Norway or Germany?

Plastic-free plastics

And one Bali-based company is working at the production end of the equation too, using bioplastics that could, with development, cater to large parts of current plastics demand. Bioplastics are biodegradable materials made from plants like seaweed and cassava, or bacterial processes.

Nyoman Adi Artana at a plastic bottle recycling plant in bali Indonesia
Nyoman Adi Artana says there's not much money in recycling plastic bottles but he wants to set an exampleImage: DW/N. Macaulay

Avani Eco converts cassava, abundantly available in Indonesia, into plastic bags and straws, and turns sugar cane fiber into takeaway containers. "Here in Indonesia, we are growing about 25.2 million pounds of cassava annually," Kevin Kumala, the company's co-founder, told DW. "When it comes to the commodity price, cassava is the most economical commodity available in the country."

Founded in 2014, Avani Eco now has 95 staff and 20 machines, which can churn out 40 tons of cassava bags per month. Kumala is convinced that by facing up to its ocean pollution crisis Bali will set a powerful example.

"We have been fortunate to have our stakeholders who became our partners and distributors visiting the island and wanting to invest in the company and bring the technology back to their home place," says Kumala.

Bali Plastik
Image: DW/W. Tilik

Disrupting the market

The most distinctive items to come out of the Bali factory are "I'm Not Plastic" cassava bags. They cost 50 percent more than regular plastic bags, but Avani are still in the early stages of scaling up their output and expect economies of scale to bring the price down with increased demand and bulk production.

Avani Eco biodegradable straws, Bali, Indonesia
Avani Eco's biodegradable straws can be spotted in restaurants and bars across BaliImage: DW/N. Macaulay

Read more: Opinion: Still a long way till 'peak plastic'

"Given the higher price of our products, the challenge is definitely convincing customers like supermarkets and retail chains," Kumala says.

But it's a challenge his company is ready to take on: "We see ourselves as a disruptor in the marketplace. Being a disruptor, you cannot be comfortable. Each and every day we're doing a lot of research and development, improving our product."

"I think the utilization of plastic will drop as much as 70 even 80 percent 10 years down the road," he adds. With growing interest from the Middle East, Caribbean and East Asia, Avani's biggest challenge may one day be keeping up with demand.