Bali, Indonesia – Every day at the crack of dawn, hundreds of fishermen land their traditional outrigger fishing boats at Jimbaran Bay, a long arch of golden sand in Bali’s south, to unload the night’s catch.
But this week they were greeted by an horrific scene: an estimated 100 tonnes of plastic and paper waste piled up to one metre (3.2 feet) high along the beach and entangled with branches and logs.
Similar scenes have dismayed beachgoers further north at Kuta, Seminyak and Canggu since the start of the year. The disaster was made worse by the washed-up remains of four endangered Olive Ridley turtles and a nearly 14-metre (46-foot) long Bryde’s whale that were thought to have died after ingesting plastic waste.
“This is not our rubbish. It comes from over there,” Putu, one of hundreds of local residents who spent the day sorting, collecting and burning trash on Jimbaran Bay, told Al Jazeera while pointing east at the sea. “It comes from Java,” added Made, another man raking the sand, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.
Bali’s tidal rubbish problem is an annual event caused in part by monsoon weather that blows marine pollution from the densely populated neighbouring island of Java – Indonesia’s economic engine. The country is one of the worst marine polluters in the world, accounting for 1.3 million of the eight million tonnes of plastic that ends up in the ocean every year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“Every year the ocean current pattern in the Bali Strait will impact the west coast of Bali. When the seawater in the Bali Strait has garbage, it will be carried to the beach,” said Gede Hendrawan, head of the Marine Computation Laboratory at Bali’s Udayana University. “This issue has been happening for almost a decade.”
Bali’s Environment and Sanitation Service has confirmed the tidal rubbish problem is worse this year than in 2020 despite the resort island recording its lowest visitor numbers in more than 10 years because of COVID-19-related travel bans.
“It’s possible the problem is being made worse by the pandemic as we can see the rubbish on the beaches this year are mostly plastic,” Hendrawan says. “Perhaps people are using more plastic for protection from COVID-19?”
Britta Denise Hardesty, a research scientist at Australia’s CSIRO science agency which is working to help solve environmental problems in Indonesia, says it is not surprising that the pollution is getting worse.
“It’s not just about how much is produced each year but how much has been produced in total,” she said. “Even if we are 20 percent better at handling plastic waste, there is 30 percent more of it. We are going to keep on seeing the legacy problem of years gone by.”
Tiza Mafira, the executive director of the Indonesia Plastic Bags Diet, an advocacy group in Jakarta, says Java is not the sole cause of the problem: “They say that the trash comes from Java based on the brands seen on plastic cup brands that are not sold in Bali. But every monsoon Bali officials anticipate a swell up of waste from rivers that carry waste out to the ocean, though there’s no data to prove it.”
She adds: “The lack of data highlights how poorly equipped we are to deal with the problem.”
Marine pollution is a global problem.
Ocean currents swirl rubbish into giant rubbish patches – the largest of which floats halfway between Hawaii and California and is twice the size of the US state of Texas, according to a 2018 study by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation. The Centre for Biological Diversity in the United States says not a single square mile of the earth’s ocean surface is plastic-free.
But the problem is more visible in archipelagic nations like Indonesia and exacerbated by the rubbish export business that sees wealthy countries like the US, the world’s largest generator of plastic waste, ship their waste to poorer countries where it is cheaper to dispose of. When local infrastructure becomes overwhelmed, waste leaks into the land and sea.
In 2018, when China banned the import of 24 kinds of waste materials, most of the trade was rerouted to Southeast Asian nations, including Indonesia.
More waste is smuggled into the country in containers that are supposed to contain paper waste for recycling but often include significant amounts of plastic and hazardous materials, according to environmental groups.
In 2019, Indonesia returned 547 shipping containers of old paper that were found to have too much plastic to various European countries, China, New Zealand and Australia, but Mafira says the returned containers are only the tip of the iceberg.
“Monitoring of this is either difficult or lax because the regulation provides this loophole where containers of scrap material are acceptable if containing up to 2 percent of total content, whereas investigations show contamination of up to 30 percent,” she says.”
In December, Australia took an important first step by banning the export of unprocessed waste overseas. Last month the European Union followed suit by banning the export of plastic waste to nations that are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – essentially blocking plastic exports to developing nations. But more global cooperation is needed. “There is an urgent need to explore the use of existing legally binding international agreements to address marine plastic pollution,” the IUCN has said.
Despite appearances, Bali is, in fact, Indonesia’s shining star in the war against plastic waste.
In 2019, it became the first and only province in the country to ban plastic bags, polystyrene and plastic straws, while youth-led initiatives mobilise thousands of volunteers on weekends for beach clean-ups. Bali is also where Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan pledged in 2017 to spend up to $1bn annually to reduce marine waste by 70 percent by 2025 and end plastic pollution by 2040.
However, last year the ministry acknowledged only 11 percent of that goal had been reached, while 40 per cent of the rubbish created in Bali is still improperly managed: either incinerated or dumped on streets, beaches and rivers.
The IUCN says recycling is the most effective way to reduce plastic pollution. But Indonesia’s decentralised waste collection system, where small communities collect waste from each household and sort it into organic and inorganic categories before trucking it away to landfill sites, short-circuits recycling.
“The front-end and the back-end, they have to work in conjunction. Recycling needs to start at home with waste separation, said Mafira of Plastic Bags Diet. “We have very strong waste depletion laws in Indonesia but to my knowledge, no city in the country has effectively implemented them.”
Hardesty at Australia’s CSIRO says putting a price on used plastic could solve the problem.
“To me, the game-changer would be to treat old plastic like a commodity, as when something has value we don’t throw it away,” she said. “There is a reason we don’t see aluminium cans, glass or copper pollution at the same rate as plastic. Because it has value.”
Charging businesses that import plastic to Bali is another idea, Hardesty says: “If you come with a ship full of a product wrapped in plastic, or even in a truck from Java, you have to take it back to where it came from or pay something else to do it.
“Either way, we have to get away from the crisis management approach that Bali is suffering right now and properly manage our waste,” she said.