Bali beaches buried in rubbish as Indonesia battles oceans of plastic

It's the monsoon season in Indonesia, which means Bali's iconic surf beach in Kuta is vomiting rubbish again. The water is a soupy sludge of plastic and the sand littered with Coke bottles, thongs, crumpled plastic water cups and drinking straws.

Shadikin Akbar, who teaches surfing lessons on Kuta beach, encountered a sanitary pad in the water. "Rubbish makes the beach disgusting," he says. "A lot of people say no to lessons or renting surfboards."

Akbar says most of the annual deluge of plastic between December and February comes from the densely populated Indonesian island of Java.

Last week authorities erected a quaintly worded banner on Kuta beach: "We do apologise for this inconvenience, your visit interrupted by natural phenomenon in the form of annual waste of west wind impact."

Bulldozers created towering piles of plastic, which disappeared before Indonesian President Joko Widodo's visit to Bali. But the next day there was more plastic tangled in the sand.

From December 5 to 10, the local government declared a "trash emergency" on Kuta and Legian beaches.

"During those five days the amount of trash that washed up on the beach each day reached over 50 tonnes," says Badung regency head of environment and sanitation Putu Eka Merthawan.

"During the monsoon season normally we clean no more than five tonnes daily."

Eka says a crew of 50 usually clean the eight-kilometre stretch of beach from Pererenan to Jimbaran on Bali's south-western coast but by declaring emergency status they could mobilise an army of sweepers. "During those five days we deployed 700 personnel to clean the beach."

Kuta is hit the hardest, Eka says, depending on waves and wind. "It is not our doing, not the Kuta or Badung people's doing. We just each year end up with the trash."

Community groups often hold beach clean-ups, including Trash Hero, which works with school groups and volunteers. "During the rainy season the amount of trash is quite shocking everywhere," says Wayan Aksara, the chairman of Trash Hero Indonesia Foundation.

Those who earn their livelihoods from the tourist beaches also do their bit - everyone from Akbar to the wiry old masseuses, hair braiders and hawkers who sell bracelets and fans are out collecting rubbish.

"Honestly, it is to keep the customers here," Akbar says. But it's just the tip of the iceberg. "The rubbish comes every day ??? the problem is bigger than just cleaning."

At an environmental summit in Kenya this month, United Nations environment executive director Erik Solheim warned the world was facing an "ocean Armageddon".

Eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped in the ocean every year, destroying marine life and ending up in the food chain.

A report last year suggested 2050 could be the grim tipping point when there is more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Solheim called for governments to ban some packaging, such as drinking straws. "Let's abolish products that we do not need ??? if you go to tourist places like Bali, a huge amount of the plastic picked from the oceans are actually straws.

Four of Indonesia's rivers - Brantas, Solo, Serayu and Progo - have been named in the top 20 most polluted rivers in the world.

In August environmental activists called on people to stop dumping used nappies into the Brantas river in East Java. A World Bank study also found that 21 per cent of Indonesia's marine litter consisted of nappies.

But the scale of the problem was most poignantly illustrated by something quite tiny. While diving off the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, US photojournalist Justin Hofman captured a seahorse clinging to a cotton bud.

The photo - "Sewage Surfer" - was named a finalist in this year's Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year award and resonated world-wide.

Indonesians are huge consumers of single-use plastic. Roadside stalls sell individual shampoo sachets. Sealed plastic cups of water (with plastic-wrapped straws) are served in restaurants and offices throughout the country. Instant noodles in polystyrene cups are a national favourite and disposable nappies are growing in popularity. Even canang sari - the daily offerings Balinese Hindus place in temples or small shrines in houses to thank their supreme deity, the Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa - often contain plastic-wrapped items such as lollies or are sold in plastic bags.

This, coupled with poor or non-existent solid waste management systems, has created the perfect environmental storm.

"Currently there are many homes that are not serviced by garbage collection systems and this is why a lot of waste is discharged into rivers or other places without control," says environmentalist David Sutasurya from the Bio-science & Biotechnology Development Foundation. Plastic is then flushed into the ocean.

A billion-dollar pledge

Indonesia is acutely aware of the impact marine pollution could have on tourism, especially in Bali, which attracts five million visitors a year. At the World Oceans Summit in March, the government pledged $US1 billion a year to reduce marine waste by 70 per cent by 2025.

Arief Havas Oegroseno, the deputy of Maritime Sovereignty in the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs, is optimistic Indonesia can achieve the ambitious target.

"We have just concluded a national strategy to address marine plastic debris," Havas tells Fairfax Media, acknowledging that "as you can see, we have problems with the management of solid waste".

Havas says local government, which has been responsible for waste management since decentralisation in 1999 following the fall of Suharto, often struggles with funding.

"International benchmarks for the management of solid waste is $US15 per person per year. In Indonesia it is $US6. So there is a big gap."

Children at al-Kausar kindergarten in Jambi, central Sumatra, can pay their school fees with rubbish. Photo: Supplied

Children at al-Kausar kindergarten in Jambi, central Sumatra, can pay their school fees with rubbish. Photo: Supplied

The missing link, Havas believes, has been the involvement of the private sector: "They have the money and expertise."

Indonesia is in discussion with foreign investors, including the Australian firm behind a proposed plastics-to-fuel plant in the Canberra suburb of Hume. "It's a very interesting proposition - waste to road-ready fuel," Havas says.

Indonesia is also experimenting with adding melted plastic into asphalt. A 700-metre plastic-tar road was built in Bali and more will be rolled out in Bekasi, a city in West Java.

An incinerator that burns waste to create electricity is being planned for Sunter in North Jakarta.

Another has been mooted for Bali, although Havas says it is complicated by restrictions that prohibit structures that stand higher than the island's coconut palms.

Environmentalist David Sutasurya is sceptical. He says incinerators and waste-to-energy technologies generally create pollutants and/or are very expensive and do not directly address the problem of rubbish being thrown into rivers and seas. "In many cases materials that should be recycled are burned," he says.

"The first thing to do is garbage collection as close as possible to where the waste is generated."

In 2016 a plastic bag tax of 200 rupiah (two cents) was trialled in 23 cities across Indonesia. However the Indonesian retailers association ended the trial later that year until the government introduced official regulations.

"To be frank it was not well thought out because ??? the stores did not know what to do with the money," Havas says.

He says a presidential decree is being considered that would enable the plastic bag tax to be returned to communities.

The governor of Bali, Made Mangku Pastika, also famously announced three years ago that Bali would be plastic bag-free by 2018.

However the two Balinese sisters behind the Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign admit 2017 has been filled with frustration.

Balinese sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen have pushed for an end to use of plastic bags.

Balinese sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen have pushed for an end to use of plastic bags. Photo: Made Nambi

This year the sisters - Melati and Isabel Wijsen - decided to work with governments to implement a charge on plastic bags in Bali as a first step towards a total ban.

"We know that implementing a charge on plastic bags in Bali is legally possible, economically beneficial and a practical, worthwhile solution to reducing plastic pollution. SO WHY AREN'T WE DOING IT?!," they wrote in an end-of-year email.

"We've had to learn to dance with the politicians. It's three steps forward, two steps back, again and again."

Meanwhile a number of schools, businesses and NGOs are coming up with innovative ways of tackling the scourge of waste.

One recycling scheme offers Indonesia's trash pickers health insurance in exchange for rubbish.

At al-Kausar kindergarten in Jambi, central Sumatra, monthly school fees can be paid with recyclable rubbish.

"I believe rubbish is an untapped gold mine," says kindergarten founder Adi Putra. "It's an endless resource. It is for our own benefit if we properly handle our rubbish."

Putra says that if rubbish is seen as a valuable commodity it changes the mindset of children at the school.

"If they want to throw something away they will separate it first, they will keep it until they see a rubbish bin. I hope people can change their way of thinking about rubbish."