Back in 1999, I did notice the smell of burning plastic, which was their way of dealing with trash, but I didn’t really think about it. During my second visit in 2002 I heard about an artist named Teguh Ostenrik who built a “plastic waste pyramid” out of bags and water bottles, to highlight the growing menace on the island.
Traditionally, Balinese wrap things up in banana leaves, quite beautifully I might add. They then simply discard the leaves on the side of the road, since the trash is biodegradable. Unfortunately, they discard the plastic wrapping just as casually.
On this last visit, a friend who lives there told me of a clean-up day that another friend organized spent with school kids. Together, they cleaned up the streets of the popular tourist town of Ubud. The diligent children were rewarded with candy; they promptly discarded the wrappers in the street.
My friend Ann and I went up to Bali Barat National Park for a snorkeling expedition. There, we met Nono, the trip organizer. He took us to Menjangan, an island about 40 minutes away by boat.
We reached the side of the island that faced Bali, and jumped in. The sights were unforgettable. Nono pointed out a huge purple starfish, and we even found Nemo. But even more unforgettable: everywhere I looked, every second, I found a piece of plastic. They ranged in size from a napkin to a speck. The tiny fish were eating them in front of us. We stuffed as many pieces as we could into our suits, to take out with us, but it was futile. The trash washed in from Bali and nearby Java with each little wave.
After lunch, we went to the other side of the island for more snorkeling. The water was pristine. The garbage hadn’t reached the far side.
Back at the base camp, Nono told us he had started making tote bags out of trash. He had started out with a few people collecting plastic snack-food bags, and developed it into a business with dozens of employees collecting, cleaning, and sewing totes and purses. He was trying to figure out a way to sell them globally.
I bought a few bags for gifts, and one big one for myself. I figured by using it during the rest of my trip, I could interest the foreign expatriates I ran into. I was wrong. The expats were polite, but the people who stopped me to inquire about it were other Balinese. They analyzed it intently, trying to figure out a way to make it themselves. In Bali, copying is an art in itself. It’s how all the shops manage to carry the same style of sculpture or jewelry, no matter how new it may be. Ann said Nono wouldn’t mind. He wants to clean up the island, so if that means copycats get into the act, fine.
I don’t write about this to act all superior to the Balinese’ discarding mentality, because it’s a worldwide problem. Our use of plastic bags in the U.S. is out of control. The Clean Air Council reports that every year, Americans use approximately 1 billion shopping bags, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste. They don’t degrade; they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Who’s going to be able to find Nemo in that mess?
According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags of all kinds are used in the U.S. each year. Another EPA estimate, from 2010: the U.S. produced almost 14 million tons of plastic packaging. More than 90 percent of that was thrown away.
So I got back home, and I got baggy with it. I already have a flotilla of tote bags that I use for food shopping, an armada of department store bags that I bring for clothes shopping, and a squadron of plastic bags that I reuse for groceries at the farmer’s market. Reusable mesh or canvas produce bags are available in many health food stores, and online for the googling. Bags that wrap the paper on rainy days are the perfect size for the bathroom trashcan. But now I have to turn to the littler bags, the wrappers that hold everything from frozen burritos to frozen peas. Bread wrappers, tortilla wrappers, frozen veggie burger wrappers – I know, my life is too full of plastic. I’ve got to work on that. But in the meantime, it’s turning into a game, finding re-uses for them all.
I may be turning into a bag lady. Thanks Nono!
The Clean Air Council has the requisite list of incredible and horrifying facts for you.
Nono’s cool bags, for buying or copying:
For more information about Nono’s bags, you can contact him at a very long address: Nono_friendsofnature@hotmail.com
But be warned, email in Bali is a bit whimsical.
His numbers are 081 33 850 4831, or 08 17 972 2923,
or 082 89 720 8731. I have no idea why he has three phones.