When we think of travelling the world we envisage countries immersed in diverse culture, lined with white sands and iridescent waters, unspoiled places far away from the relentless ‘9-5’ life. Discovering Indonesia’s rich cornucopia of islands, in many ways, was nothing short of the above yet for me the experience was sadly tainted with the reality of one of humanity’s greatest addictions: plastic.
Far from imploring the perfect Instagram photo Indonesia, like the rest of SE Asia, has now become the world’s dumping ground with unprecedented amounts of plastic waste consuming local communities and polluting the environment. Since China banned waste imports from developed countries such as the USA, UK and other European countries, it has exposed the travesty that is the world’s recycling industry.
The mythical propagation of an efficient recycling system has caused an epidemic of ‘aspirational recyclers’ who are throwing away a plethora of plastic items [uncertain of whether they can be recycled or not] with the expectation that someone, somewhere, at some point will deal with it. (1)
The Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives (GAIA) uncovered the desolation and destruction South East Asian countries are enduring due to plastic waste with communities experiencing ‘contaminated water supplies, crop deaths, respiratory illness from exposure to burning plastic, and the rise of organized crime’. The GAIA report that as Malaysia and Thailand have recently enforced their laws around waste importation, Indonesia is seeing a colossal stream of plastic waste contaminating its shores. (2)
Exacerbating the problem is Indonesia’s booming tourism industry which, according to the National Geographic, has proliferated within the last 50 years with 15.8 million visitors recorded in 2018. This explosion has resulted in an overwhelming amount of waste being generated. Without the means to properly invest in the necessary infrastructures, Indonesian communities are struggling to cope under the sheer weight of the global plastic crisis. (3)
How you can help reduce plastic waste as a tourist
With this surreal, almost apocalyptic, scene unfurling before us, it is a challenge to see how we as individuals can help – yet there is hope. Out of the chaos has come a number of commendable grassroot organisations that tourists can support who are tenaciously fighting back against plastic pollution.
One organisation in particular is not for profit organisation Gili Eco Trust located on Gili Trawangan off the coast of Lombok. Alongside coral reef restoration, creating a healthy environment for working animals and promoting ecotourism, the Gili Eco Trust’s mission is to ensure all waste is minimised on the island and recycling is managed effectively through clean ups and education workshops. (4)
The Gili Eco Trust collect between 12 – 20 tonnes of waste per day. Delphine Robbe, Coordinator and Project Manager for the Gili Eco Trust discusses the severity of plastic pollution on the island:
‘[Plastic waste] pollutes the air and the water as there is no well managed waste disposal. A lot of waste from Lombok riverbeds end up in the oceans and on the beach. Many animals on the rubbish tip are there to eat the organic [waste] but as this is not separated, they also eat plastic. Micro plastics in the oceans and in the sand have been at high levels.’ (5)
The Gili Eco Trust stress that the main cause for plastic pollution on the island is tourism. As tourists, we have a moral responsibility to reduce our environmental impact by supporting local community projects and organisations.
The Gili Eco Trust have a myriad of projects tourists can easily get involved with whilst still enjoying the inimitable beauty of the island. For specifically reducing plastic waste, tourists can help out in beach clean – ups which happen every week on the island. The Trust also have recycling projects such as the RE – Cycle tour inviting tourists to explore the dark side of Gili Trawangan’s paradise and learn how individuals can help with the island’s waste problem. (6)
When visiting Gili Trawangan I supported a clean- up on a coconut plantation where waste from the island’s rubbish tip contaminated the area. To be a part of a project that is fundamental to the preservation and longevity of the island’s natural environment was an enriching and educational experience.
Whether at home or travelling abroad, the severity and perpetual nature of the plastic crisis cannot be ignored. You may feel as an individual your actions are small and ineffectual yet supporting local organisations such as the Gili Eco Trust is a huge step towards making a difference. As broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough movingly conveys as part of the BBC’s Plastic’s Action campaign:
‘The actions of any just one of us may seem to be trivial and to have no effect, but the knowledge that there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who are doing the same thing, that really does have an effect’. (7)
- Simmonds, C. (2019) How you’re recycling plastic wrong, from coffee cups to toothpaste. The Guardian, 17 June. Available from www.theguardian.com
- GAIA (2019) Discarded Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastic Crisis. GAIA. Available from wastetradestories.org
- Siddharta, A T. (2019) Bali fights for its beautiful beaches by rethinking waste, plastic trash. National Geographic, 14 October. Available from nationalgeographic.com
- Gili Eco Trust (2020) About the Gili Eco Trust. Available from https://giliecotrust.com/about/
- Robbe, D. (2020) Plastic pollution on Gili Trawangan. Interviewed by C. Johnson, 10 January.
- Gili Eco Trust (2020) About the Gili Eco Trust. Available from https://giliecotrust.com/get-involved/
- BBC (2018) Sir David Attenborough’s plastic message – BBC . Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW3jEIYBFzg