(MENAFN- The Peninsula) Bloomberg
Over a six-week period this spring, the Indonesian nongovernmental organization Sungai Watch collected more than 40 tons, or 80,000 pounds, of trash from Bali's Jimbaran Bay-traditionally a bucket list paradise known for its grilled seafood restaurants, surf break and idyllic Four Seasons Resort.
The magnitude surprised nobody on-site. Tsunamis of trash like this have become a recurring issue: They wash over from neighboring Java, the world's most populous island, during monsoon season each year. But as tourism roars back post-pandemic, global awareness of the issue is soaring thanks to viral videos on social media and a flurry of news coverage. "When you have an entire coastline covered with plastic, it is a giant crisis,” says Gary Bencheghib, 28, one of three French-born, Bali-raised siblings who founded Sungai Watch in 2020.
Few destinations are quite as reliant on tourism as Bali, which counts on the industry to deliver more than half its gross domestic product. Pre-pandemic the island saw international visitors swell from 2.88 million per year in 2012 to 6.3 million in 2019, at which point tourism was contributing $7.8 billion to Bali's economy.
Now, in this first full recovery year, Bali Tourism Board Chairman Ida Bagus Agung Partha Adnyana is aiming for 4.5 million international arrivals, a figure the island seems poised to exceed.
Those visitors-who come for beach bliss, Hindu temples and luxe resorts on the edges of spectacular jungles and rice fields-may be surprised to find how much their experience can be marred by the island's infrastructural failures. Roads are impossibly congested, making for frustratingly long drives while sightseeing, and rampant construction creates noise pollution. But trash is the most startling issue: Without a centralized waste collection or treatment system, the government estimates that 52% of Bali's garbage is mismanaged. Between some 1,000 illegal open dump sites polluting the island's waters and litter piling up on the shores and roadsides, trash is the single biggest threat to the tourism economy.
So far, local leaders say, the amount of tourism business Bali is losing to its trash problem is impossible to quantify, which may be convenient, since the government has had a difficult time curbing the issue. On the island, bans on single-use plastics have largely failed, suffering in part from a lack of accountability. Moreover, in this deeply religious culture, ceremonial offerings have largely shifted from bamboo and banana leaf goods to foods wrapped in cellophane; they're used during near-constant Hindu ceremonies. Although Indonesia has vowed to reduce its ocean-bound plastic waste by 70% by 2025, there's a lack of physical evidence of any progress it's so far made.
But Bali's reputation and economy are at stake-especially given the luxurious new options on nearby Sumba Island, which is conversely being billed as a pristine haven.
The $40 Million Cleanup Plan
Sungai Watch is one of the most promising organizations taking on Bali's waste issue; its teams pull some 6,600 pounds of plastic from Bali's rivers, illegal landfills and barriers daily. The group combats river waste-sungai means "river,” and an estimated 90% of ocean plastics come from these waterways-through a village model that provides locals in seven communities with sorting stations, plastic recovery facilities, river barriers and the requisite support staff. Five more sites are currently in the works. Scaling to this point has been an uphill climb, made possible through sponsors and partners such as World Surf League, Corona, Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. and Marriott Indonesia.
Bencheghib predicts it will take about 100 village sites to close up all the illegal trash dumps in Bali. That will require an investment of more than $40 million over the next three years-at a budget of $150,000 per year per site. But with that funding, Sungai Watch could move quickly.
"This is really just disaster relief for the next two, three years, going in and closing every open dump,” Bencheghib says. The process involves lots of physical effort by excavators and workers to not only collect and clean but also sort and recycle or reuse the refuse alongside simultaneous community outreach and education.
Ronald Akili, the Indonesian entrepreneur behind Seminyak's Desa Potato Head-an eco-village beloved by creative types, with two design-forward hotels, a beach club and restaurants-is tackling the problem from a different angle.
His Collective Waste Centre, set to open in November, aims to reduce waste specifically generated by hotels and hospitality businesses. It cost $200,000 to build the site, which will be staffed by locals. When up and running it will handle organic, nonorganic and garden waste from the eight resorts, beach clubs, and restaurants that have signed up so far, sorting that material to be composted, recycled and otherwise diverted from landfills. Akili says the facilities, if scaled, could reduce resorts' landfill-bound waste to just 5% from the current 50%.
Nearby countries offer potential models for Bali. Take the Philippines' popular holiday island Boracay, which closed in 2018 for six months to repair environmental damage and clean up pollution that came in large part from overtourism and fast-paced development. On Bali, six months could mean as much as a $3.5 billion loss based on 2019's tourism income, since even the once-slow rainy season is now about as busy as high season.
As for restarting with a clean slate, tourism head Adnyana says the "Bali area is too big” to stage a shutdown. "Many people will complain,” he says.
To Bencheghib, shutting down wouldn't help. He says the focus needs to be on making sure every village knows how to responsibly handle its waste.
"Stopping tourism will never work,” agrees Akili, adding that during pandemic shutdowns the Balinese struggled to put food on their tables. Instead, he says, "we should shift tourism to be more regenerative and find new ways of doing things.”
One approach may be to take a page from Amsterdam, Hawaii or Venice-all destinations that are shifting tourism management strategies to a lower-density model that caters not to backpackers but to higher-paying (and theoretically more conscious) travelers.
Bambu Indah hotel owner and environmentalist John Hardy-who moved to the island in the mid-1970s-would love to see Bali's offerings look more like Bhutan's, a kingdom whose high-value, low-volume model he calls "a very fabulous solution.”
"They don't let random tourists in,” he says, referring to the country's $200 nightly levies for international visitors. "To go to Bhutan you have to be full of intention.”
The government agrees, but only to a point: In July, Bali Governor Wayan Koster announced that a $10 tourist tax would be charged to all visitors upon entry starting in 2024, with the earnings earmarked for environmental and cultural conservation. Local officials have also been petitioning to increase the visa-on-arrival price (currently $35) by up to three times in coming months.
One Man's Trash...
As Akili and Bencheghib work on funding their more ambitious cleanup efforts, both entrepreneurs-and others-are finding ways to repurpose the island's garbage. Bencheghib, for instance, lives in a tiny home made entirely of plastic bags, a prototype for Sungai Watch's new social enterprise that's making furniture from the material. Space Available, a pandemic effort from English expat creative director Daniel Mitchell, is churning out attractive clothing, home decor and furnishings only from upcycled and repurposed materials.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Gary Bencheghib (@garybencheghib)
Akili, meanwhile, has reduced Potato Head's waste so that only 3% of the village's generated trash is going to landfills; he aims for the whole enterprise to be zero-waste by 2028, if not sooner. A big driver of his success so far has been the construction of an R&D-focused Waste Lab, open to guests, where plastic bottle tops, Styrofoam, oyster shells and other trash become terrazzo-like chairs, stools and kitchen utensils-all designed by such boldface names as Max Lamb, Andreu Carulla and Kengo Kuma.
"The challenge is every day there is a new material that needs to be reimagined,” says Akili, whose team is also working to transform cigarette butts into something people will want to pay for.
"There's this amazing energy of creation and creativity and, really, the idea that anything is possible here on the island,” says Bencheghib, who's driven to save it. "Bali is like the protagonist,” he adds, "and we have to fight to clean it up.”