Sustainability Abroad: The “Trash Problem” on Islands

I recently visited three continents over the span of three weeks during a trip that was half leisure and half business. At each of these destinations, I saw things that piqued my curiosity about the future of our planet, the viability of increasing the health and well-being of human beings, and the opportunities for creating sustainable communities. 

As someone who is a relative newbie to the sustainability community (having attended my first Greenbuild conference in 2018), I try to keep an open mind as I learn a multitude of new topics and contribute, while I still can, from somewhat of an “outsiders” perspective. As I educate myself about the planet, the built environment, human health and wellness, and the intersection of all three, I take in as much as possible in every environment I encounter, and how these environments impact the people living in them and ultimately the world.

Destination: Bali, Indonesia

I was and am grateful for the opportunity to visit Bali, an island part of the Indonesian archipelago with just over 4 million people. The island is about 95 miles across and 70 miles north to south. It is a destination like none other, and one I would highly recommend visiting, but that’s a topic for a completely different article.

The moment you exit the airport, you encounter locals trying to make a days wage by picking you up and driving you to wherever you want to go. During your first car ride, motorbikes zoom around you, filling the streets, and appear to pay little attention to whatever traffic laws exist. I was shocked that I did not see an accident the entire time I was there, but maybe they just have far superior driving skills to those of Americans. Sidewalks are very small and almost non-existent, especially as you reach the outskirts of the major city, Denpasar.

As we journeyed out of Denpasar and towards Ubud (made famous by the movie Eat Pray Love), I couldn’t help but notice people burning their trash on the side of the road. I saw trash on fire in ditches and medium sized buckets ablaze, both sending smoke into the sky. It was a relatively small thing to notice for an “outsider” of the sustainability community, but I couldn’t help but ask certain questions. Why are they doing this? What’s the impact of burning these materials on the environment? On the air quality for the people? Why don’t they put the garbage out to be picked up and sent to a landfill and/or recycling facility?

I came to learn that on a relatively small island without modern recycling and waste disposal infrastructure, that many of us have come to take for granted in more modernized countries, people do what they have to. “Garbage Day” doesn’t exist there for private residences. So when the garbage fills up, Balinese households do the only thing that they can to get rid of it, throw it on the street or burn it. 40% of the 3,800 metric tons of garbage produced daily on the island is dumped on the streets, beaches and rivers, or incinerated.

Throughout my time in Bali, it became clear to me that the Balinese locals weren’t burning trash because they were unaware of the impact, it was simply the only way they could find to get rid of it. While I was out seeing various sights and in need of hydration, I would purchase a large bottle of water. Purchasing plastic bottles is something I try my best not to do anymore knowing that they are no longer being recycled (only 9% of plastics ever produced has been recycled); however, in Bali I wanted to avoid drinking tap water to prevent the possibility of getting sick from potential bacteria in the water.

I remember after finishing a bottle of water and stopping for lunch, I asked if they could dispose of my plastic bottle. When I did this, the local Balinese waiter looked at me like I was crazy. Ultimately, she took the bottle from me, but I could tell she was extremely reluctant in doing so. Later it dawned on me why she hesitated so much. She knew that there was no way for her (or the restaurant) to “dispose” of this bottle. They would likely have to burn it and burning plastic might possibly be one of the worst things for the environment. I felt horrible after having this realization, and throughout the rest of the trip I made a conscious effort to not buy plastic and to limit my footprint and impact on this island that was graciously providing me with the vacation of a lifetime. 

The Balinese people are amazing, and during my stay, I came to realize through my experiences that they are very resourceful and make use of every last bit of material that they can. From the way they use bamboo in their building construction, to how they weave various leaves into baskets and other products. I mean just look at this “floating breakfast” that was made for us where almost every material has been or was reused. The Balinese utilize composting and even reuse and repurpose glass bottles through a process called upcycling.

Another example is how they are taking empty beverage cartons and breaking them down to recycle the various parts. The paperboard (75%) is turned into recycled paper. The polyethylene plastic (20%) and aluminum foil (5%) are recycled into a roofing material called polyroof, which is a strong, durable and heat-resistant roof made from 100% recycled material.

Bali is an amazing paradise. Unfortunately, tourism and population growth is turning the “trash problem” there into an emergency situation. Waste Collection, Composting, and Waste Bank services are emerging to address the problem. Organizations like EcoBali are trying to educate the population further about the dire problem, but being on an isolated island, makes the problem all the more difficult to solve.

As we look to the future, governments, NGOs, international organizations, and each of us as individuals must address critical issues impacting the human race such as: climate change, population growth, pollution, and waste. Bali is an example of a relatively small, yet popular tourist destination surrounded by water, making many of these issues particularly critical.

Jeff Allen - Founder + CEO

Jeff Allen

Jeff is an avid entrepreneur, technologist, and eLearning expert. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a background in consulting, product management, leadership coaching, and learning & development. As founder and CEO of the WELL Learning Library, he has joined his passion for education with his passion for health & wellness. He is leading the expansion of the WELL Learning Library and furthering the educational offerings of the International WELL Building Standard, contributing to the health and wellness of human beings across the globe.