The Worst Thing About Indonesia: The Trash Problem

“Why did you just throw that into the ocean?… WHY?”

The fishermen who had just tossed a bottle filled with yellow liquid overboard began giggling.

“It’s petrol!” They laughed.

“Why would you throw petrol into the water?!”

Moritz jumped into the ocean and began swimming towards the bottle bobbing up and down between our boat and theirs.

This caused the fisherman to roar in laughter, “It’s pee pee! It’s pee pee!”

Moritz retrieved the bottle and tossed it into our boat.

Sadly, we’d seen other bottles floating in between waves during our surf session at Don Don’s, a break just off of the coast of Lombok. Every seemingly deserted beach in Indonesia had piles of garbage strewn along it – proof that humans had not only been there, but abused it.


This wouldn’t be the first, second, third… or even tenth time we’d see a local Indonesian mindlessly throw trash on the ground. We’d watch monkeys run off into the forest with plastic bags of chips given to them by humans. When our friend asked a man, “And who is going to pick up the can?” after he had given a beer to one of the monkeys, he simply laughed and shrugged. The piles of waste in every corner, mistreatment of animals, and seemingly careless attitude from the locals we confronted began to take its toll on me.

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In the evenings, my eyes would sting and water from the ash of burning trash piles lit in front of every home. The smell of melting plastic became something that I eventually grew used to.

For the past year, Moritz and I have been trying to live more mindfully when it comes to plastic consumption. Whenever possible, we use canvas bags for grocery shopping, forgo plastic packaging, and pick up stray garbage on our local beaches. We are galaxies away from being wasteless saints, but all of our actions feel so useless and futile after visiting Indonesia, where couch sized piles of trash are found everywhere – often along the shoreline, blowing into the water. Who is to say that our same urine filled water bottle wouldn’t end up right where we found it?

There’s a few reasons why Indonesia’s trash problem is as bad at it is.

For one, there simply isn’t a proper system in place to handle the massive amounts of waste. On a practical level, it’s hard to find a trash can to throw garbage in. Businesses don’t want the responsibility of throwing their own and customer’s trash away, and cans in public places are sparse. On a tour through natural waterfalls, I asked our guide where I could throw away a piece of plastic that we’d found. He pointed to a pile of trash next to a small creek. “We will clean it up on Sunday,” he assured me. Judging by the size of the garbage heap, I highly doubt he was telling the truth.

Even if the locals are able to confine the waste into one space, there is no system to move it to a processing plant.  With 250 million people and thousands of Indonesian islands, the logistics are mind-boggling. Transporting the trash costs money – something the majority of Indonesians frankly don’t have. It explains why nobody wants to take responsibility for the waste cultivating in every crevice of the country.

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In Bali, which is just one of Indonesia’s islands, over 5,000 tons of  waste are dumped into the waterways on a daily basis with no filtering mechanism in place, according to ROLE, a conservation charity. All of this congregates on Bali’s formerly pristine beaches, and is pulled out to sea with the incoming tides. Those who once were able to take a peaceful stroll along the shore now have to keep an eye out for medical waste and sharp objects embedded into the sand.

Secondly, the culture is not as eco-focused as it should be. One popular explanation is that older generations used to throw everything on the ground because food packaging was made of biodegradable banana leaves. Now, the act of throwing wrappers on the ground has stayed, but the banana leaves have been replaced with plastic. It’s a stark contrast from many other Asian neighbors. For example, Singapore places heavy fines on littering, and is known as one of the world’s cleanest countries. Japan has an overall waste-conscious society, where even cigarette butts are placed in personal containers and carried around until a trashcan is available. Indonesia, from my experience, doesn’t have the infrastructure and overall collective conscious to be eco-friendly. The Indonesians who are looking to make a positive change regarding pollution are seen as outliers and don’t have the financial means or influence to carry out their goals.

I probed my Indonesian friend, Angga, for answers. “As long as we can eat three times a day… we don’t care about the other stuff. It’s the classic problem for a developing country – money and technology.” He goes on to explain, “There is no system in place to sort, recycle, and reuse our garbage.”


What can be changed?

Fortunately, there are ways that Indonesians and tourists can help turn the country around. Indonesia has had a hero when it comes to animal conservation, Pak Ketut Putra, who convinced religious leaders to ban turtle hunting. Turtle populations immediately rose the following years. So, there is hope of more religious leaders and influential people incorporating environmental ideology.

And we must be prepared, as travelers, to look closely into the mirror. Tourism is one of the main sources of pollution for Indonesia, with visitors adding to the piles of garbage. Hotels and restaurants act as revolving doors, where people come in, consume, and leave without any thought given to where their waste is landing.

Luckily, some expats in Bali have made an effort to help the tourism industry develop a waste system on even the most simple levels. In Kyle Thiermann’s project, Surfing for Change, he delves into Bali’s trash problem a bit deeper. He was able to find a foreigner-founded organization that equipped vendors in Uluwatu with rubbish bins – something that hadn’t existed there before! Waste previously was being dumped along the cliffs, gathering in streams and in the ocean. Another surfer has started a petition to enforce a plastic bag ban on the island… but the mayor has requested one million signatures, a demand that’s been hard to meet.

In addition, companies, such as Quiksilver and Coca-Cola have taken note by investing in programs that aid locals in managing their waste.

As travelers, we take on the role of being a citizen of the world. Whenever possible, we need to investigate where our trash is going. We need to reduce our dependence on disposable goods. We need to support sustainable hotels and tour operators, even if it means spending a bit more money. We need to pick up garbage, even if others laugh at us. We need to educate people, even the locals and even fellow travelers. So many people in Indonesia are barely surviving, worried about where their next meal is coming from – but we’re not. We are the ones with the time, the resources, and the knowledge to help change things around. It’s not likely that your two-week trip to a foreign country will save the world from drowning in trash, but it will make it just that much better. And that matters.

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17 Responses

  1. Hey Chantae

    I had no idea that Indonesia is so lax with its waste disposal techniques. But I am from India and hence the supposed explanations for such ennui is quite understandable.

    India too isn’t very efficient about waste disposal, public toilets or other eco-friendly initiatives. The ones who do want to make a difference don’t have the means to do so! And the ones with all the money would rather spout promises that they don’t have any plans to keep 🙁

    You have painted a very vivid picture with your words. Indeed, every little bit matters! #HUGSS

    Keep penning such powerful posts and continue making a positive difference…


    • Chantae says:

      Hey Kitto,
      Thanks for the compliment! I had no idea about Indonesia’s waste issue either until I visited myself.

      It is sad to see that pollution in developing countries is such a widespread issue – and one that isn’t easily solved. India’s incredibly high population alone makes it so difficult to manage waste! That paired with widespread poverty is just a logistical nightmare. Ahh, but every country has to start somewhere so hopefully things will turn around with the rise of technology and eco-friendly awareness. We can dream, right 🙂

  2. Juergen says:

    I think trash is a problem in almost every developing country. Packaged products and all their implications arrived late for many. In the “old day” it was okay to throw out your vegetable scraps or egg shells, they would feed your animals or quickly rot away, plastic doesn’t do that. I remember a mountain village Greece some 25-30 years ago: they were used to throw their trash into a dry river bed, come rain what was left would wash out to sea. This worked with mostly organic stuff, but as soon as canned food arrived the beach was littered with rusty cans you would cut your feet on. So for many years they would spend days cleaning up the beach after winter rains – after all: they were living of tourists. To make the connection and to change the habit of using their river bed for refuse took much longer… Most countries simply don’t have the resources to put a sophisticated collection system into place.
    Juergen recently posted…What a Perfect Day at La CampanaMy Profile

    • Chantae says:

      That’s such an interesting case study and I’m sure that there’s endless examples like it. Like the people living on the cliffs of Uluwatu in Bali. Very sad, I think there will have to be a profit making appeal for the government to actually start putting in a proper system.

  3. Franca says:

    Oh no, that’s terrible and I didn’t have a clue about this big problem and to be honest I’ve never read about it anywhere. I hope they realize how important is to fix this issue and sooner rather than later.
    Franca recently posted…The Olympiastadion – Home Of History & Hertha BerlinMy Profile

  4. Whoa. That’s a lot of trash.
    Christopher James recently posted…best free betMy Profile

  5. Justine says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this post Chantae. Now that I’ve spent 5 months traveling and living in Indonesia, I am so concerned by the trash problem. I’m actually writing a post about it right now, so I’ve been doing a lot of research and what I’ve found is so disturbing. Landfills and waste management systems are virtually non-existent in Jakarta — and this is the largest city in SE Asia! It’s so sad that all of Java’s trash is either burned or thrown into the ocean and rivers. And, sadly, Indonesian’s are not eco-conscious at all. It’s just doesn’t seem to be a part of life here, which is understandable but difficult for me to tolerate! I agree that it’s so important for tourists to do their part and try not to contribute to Indonesia’s horrific trash problem. Great post!
    Justine recently posted…3 Reasons Being a Vegetarian in Penang Actually RocksMy Profile

    • Chantae says:

      Thanks Justine! Yeah, the statistics are so heartbreaking. That’s what I’ve heard as well about Jakarta – so overwhelming D: I bet it’s hard to see firsthand for so long. Thanks for the comment, I can’t wait to read what you have to say about it too!!

  6. Simone says:

    This is so true!
    As a tourist I always try to reduce my rubbish but one thing that was hard was water. with undrinkable tap water and 70c bottles of water in Bali, the obvious choice for most travellers is to buy disposable water bottles. I do this most of the time too but I also try to properly boil tap water when i have time in the hotel so that I can reuse the bottles. Obviously this isn’t always possible for travellers and it is a bit inconvenient as you have to hold the kettle down to make it boil for at least 3 min, then wait for it to cool then fill up your bottle.
    As one of the major contributors to plastic waste, I think that this should be an area for people to look at in regards to waste management/reduction

    • Chantae says:

      Ah that’s such a good point. I hated having to buy and throw away bottles as well – it’s just not realistic to boil water, especially if you’re staying in hostels or homestays with no kitchen. I have a water bottle with a filter but I haven’t researched if it filters well enough for Indonesia’s tap water, but it’s definitely something to look into. If you find a good idea/alternative – let me know!

  7. AntoineJoseph says:

    Problem is, there’s not much we can do about it. The fires aren’t taking place in the western countries and they aren’t asking for help.

    What should we do? Barge in? Uselessly demand they deal with it better? It’s not going to happen. Yes it’s a tragedy that many irreplaceable species may become extinct, but you think that will be a good argument for a country that so far doesn’t seem to care about the damage this has caused?

  8. Great Share!

    Putting a waste management policy in Indonesia can help to reduce the amount of rubbish and help you be friendlier to the environment on a daily basis. Actually we need to control the pollution of these waste. Because controlling pollution has a meaningful effect on our atmosphere and through that on our life in present and coming years. Healthy atmosphere benefits not only humanity but also animals and nature. Clean air let us breath deeply without being afraid of catching and illness or making our lungs weaker. Pollution made many people suffer and if you think it did not affected you then go over the list of things that are caused by it.
    Thomas Beckham recently posted…Hello world!My Profile

  9. Chris B says:

    With a country of 250m who by your own writing has no ethic of putting trash in the bin i think it’s a real stretch to say tourism is one of the main causes of pollution. I recommend you visit residential areas and see that it is just terrible for trash. It’s a typical western response to blame tourism in my view. IN Bali I saw numerous tourists giving up their days to help clean the beach. I saw dozens of local business owners laughing and encouraging kids to throw bottles from the bin back into the sea. It’s not black and white but tourism is a fraction a tiny fraction of the problem. When you get away from Bali and lombok and visit bandung Sumatra suleweysi you will see that it is day to day trash that makes up the vast majority of the issue.

    • Chantae says:

      Hey Chris,
      I definitely see your point. I believe I mentioned that trash is an issue on multiple levels — with locals and not helped by tourism. IMO the tourists cleaning up the beach — it’s somewhat superficial because the trash goes into the bin, and then where? Unless the tourists are shuttling the trash off the islands, it will likely enter the waterways again because Indonesia lacks a waste management system. Though to this point tourists often bring education and strategies on how to help manage waste/reduce plastic usage. I’ve seen it time and time again that a fisherman throws plastic into the sea, or a hotel dumps the trash into a waterway. You’re right that it’s not ONLY tourists but also Indonesian culture, no management plan, and lack of resources that is the main problem.

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