Bali’s Trash Problem: Part II

My last post, Trashy Tourists, questioned the claim in an article  I read that thoughtless tourists have caused Bali’s enormous trash problem. Large, pink, beer-guzzling tourists are easy to pick on, but are they the reason Bali is drowning in garbage? This post will dive deeper into the dumpster, beyond tourism, to look at the likelier reasons behind Bali’s trash problem.

A paper in Science listed Indonesia, where the island of Bali is located, as the source of more plastic in the ocean than any country besides China. Indonesia has a lot of coastline (55,000 km), a big population (260 million with a few million added each year) and they are consuming a lot of stuff (especially the plastic kind). Add a flimsy, hole-filled waste management infrastructure, and it becomes apparent why Indonesia leaks so much plastic waste into the ocean.

Indonesia is better at creating waste than managing it. The country had no national policy on waste management until 2008. Before this waste was managed, or not managed, at the local level. Trash is often brought to open dumps. This is slightly better than dumping in fields and streams, but open dumps have none of the environmental safeguards of today’s landfills.  In 2008, 81% of Indonesia’s landfills were open dumps. Modern landfills have liners that collect leachate, the liquid that seeps out of dumps. The leachate can then be treated to prevent pollution of ground water and streams. Modern landfills have collection systems for methane which is produced from decomposing trash. Methane is quite volatile and can explode, burst into flames or leak into the atmosphere. It is a powerful greenhouse gas. Modern landfills must also be covered regularly with a layer of dirt to seal in garbage and gases. Open dumps have none of these features. Indonesia’s new waste management policy mandated that all open dumps be closed by 2013. Some open dumps were replaced with modern landfills. Unless these are managed properly, and this requires money which is often scarce, the new landfills will perform like the open dumps they replaced.

Recycling exists in Indonesia, but in a very informal way. Scavengers dodge dump trucks in landfills and sort through garbage for materials that can be sold for cash. Think Slumdog Millionaire. Sometimes cows graze there too.

The wastewater situation isn’t much better. Bali has a new wastewater treatment plant, but many hotels and restaurants will not hook into it because they don’t want to pay monthly wastewater treatment fees. Some have their own wastewater treatment systems. Others dump raw waste into ditches or the ocean. With untreated sewage and leachate from dumps contaminating drinking water, it’s best to avoid tap water. Bali Belly, according to tourist guides, is no fun.

What about those tourists? Despite beaches littered with garbage, tourists continue to swarm to Bali. According to Bali’s Tourism Agency, over three million people visited the island in 2013. Rice paddies have been converted to hotels. With rice paddies now scarce, plans have been made to fill in much of Benoa Bay, a marine conservation area. Mangrove forests, seagrass beds and coral will be converted into nine dry islands with luxury vacation villas and a shopping mall.

Tourists come to Bali and bring their money. This money isn’t used to fix Bali’s waste problems, but that is not the fault of the tourists. One day tourists will stop going to Bali and will visit someplace clean instead. Then Bali will wish they had used those tourist dollars to deal with their waste instead of undermining the great natural beauty that is the source of their prosperity.