Bali's 'trash heroes' are cleaning up paradise, one beach at a time

  • Climate
  • Tuesday, 23 Feb 2021

Participants in a rubbish-collecting campaign organised by Trash Hero picking up litter on a beach in Indonesia. Photos: Trash Hero Indonesia/dpa

The photos prompted an outpouring of horror around the world: Tonnes of plastic waste piled high on the beaches of Indonesia's otherwise paradise island of Bali. And that's despite the fact that tourists have all but disappeared due to the pandemic.

This tide of litter arrives on Bali's beaches every year, the result of monsoon-influenced ocean currents, growing pollution of the oceans, mass consumption and a broken global waste disposal system.

And the waste doesn't just ruin the beaches. Plastic is also strewn around Bali's forests, riverbanks, temple grounds and roadsides.

Aksara, chairman of Trash Hero Indonesia, says their motto is: Aksara, chairman of Trash Hero Indonesia, says their motto is: "We clean, we educate, we change."But there are efforts to rid the island of the rubbish.

Enter Wayan Aksara, Balinese "trash hero" and role model for many fellow citizens.

"I used to work as a tour guide and like other friends, I often got complaints from guests about scattered trash," says the 50-year-old.

"It made me feel compelled to do something so that Bali's environment would become cleaner and better maintained. At that time there was only little awareness and concern," explains Aksara.

In 2017, he joined Trash Hero, a global environmental volunteer initiative founded in Switzerland. The movement brings together community-based organisations to clear up litter and raise awareness about protecting the environment.

"By spending a few hours together picking up trash, people gain a profound understanding of the consequences of being careless about waste," the movement's website says.

This was the case for Aksara. His involvement started small and grew. In the beginning, he collected trash with his two children and a few friends at Saba Beach, on Bali's eastern coast, near his home town of Banjar Buruan.

"In order to invite more people, I decided to form an environmental community," he says. After learning about Trash Hero, he decided to join the group's "big family" and became head of the Saba chapter.

Just one year later, Aksara was named chairman of Trash Hero Indonesia and, with dozens of local chapters, now organises nationwide campaigns in the world's largest island nation.

Trash is not just a Balinese phenomenon.

Beaches in Indonesia are especially affected during the monsoons by plastic waste. Beaches in Indonesia are especially affected during the monsoons by plastic waste.

"When talking about the problem of plastic waste, this does not only happen in Bali but all over the world. However, the level of public awareness in Bali, or in Indonesia in general, about the dangers of plastic waste still needs to be improved," according to Aksara.

Indonesia is itself one of the biggest polluters of the world's oceans with plastic, something the trash heroes are striving to change. The motto is: "We clean, we educate, we change."

Once a week, mostly at weekends, groups meet and collect what they can – a small anti-trash army, full of energy, clad in yellow T-shirts and equipped with tongs and large fabric bags. Many young people and tourists joined in before the pandemic brought tourism to a halt.

So far, over 9,000 people have collected an estimated 24 tonnes of rubbish on Saba Beach alone, including 875 children, according to the group's Facebook page."Children's educational programmes are the main thing. We try to educate children to be more caring at an early age," says Aksara.

It isn't just tourists that bring the problem. The pandemic-era lull in arrivals hasn't seen a reduction in trash, Aksara says. "Instead, it is increasing."

This is partly because many Balinese have lost their jobs and started their own small businesses cooking and delivering food, using more plastic for packaging. And then there are all the disposable masks.

Trash Heroes are not the only ones trying to clean up Bali.

Many organisations have taken up the cause, not least because there is never a shortage of trash on the island.

Many tourists who come for yoga retreats also join clean-up campaigns in order to give something back to the island they are staying on.

Yet Aksara says there is a long way to go to get society to care about the environment. "Of course it requires high commitment and consistency to make it happen," he admits.

But he is firmly convinced that with time, real change can be achieved. For Bali, which has suffered for so long under the weight of mass tourism and masses of trash, this would be a blessing. – dpa

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