BALI, Indonesia -- On the Indonesian resort island of Bali, local law states that buildings must not be higher than a coconut tree. But in the village of Suwung on the east coast there is a mountain of rubbish so high it can be seen from an arterial road 500 meters away. The mound is one of eight landfill sites that are supposed to deal with the 3,800 metric tons of rubbish produced daily on the island -- 40% of which is dumped on streets, beaches and rivers, or incinerated.
Bali is far from the only place in Indonesia with a rubbish problem -- the country is the world's second-largest producer of plastic waste after China, according to official statistics. But as one of the region's top tourist destinations, Bali's problem is exacerbated by mass tourism and rampant development that has far outpaced infrastructure, especially in the south of the island.
According to Colliers International, a global real estate services company, there are 4,800 accommodation properties with 60,000 guest rooms in Bali, in addition to thousands of foreign-owned villas rented by holidaymakers, often illegally via websites such as Facebook and Airbnb.
"There are laws against such encroachment in most countries, there is also respect and good sense. But none seem to apply here," said Alistair Speirs, publisher of NOW! Bali, a local community magazine.
Some headway is being made. A bylaw has been drafted that would introduce a $10 "green levy," to be paid by each of the 6.5 million foreigners who holiday on the island every year. And a ban on single-use plastics -- shopping bags, Styrofoam packaging and straws -- that comes into effect in July is already being widely observed.
But Tiza Mafira, executive director of Indonesia Plastic Bags Diet, an advocacy group that helped push through the ban, believes real progress will not be made until recycling is widely accepted by home and property owners across the island. "Recycling needs to start at home with waste separation. We have very strong waste depletion laws in Indonesia, but to my knowledge no city in the country has effectively implemented them," Mafira said.
Some municipalities and villages have introduced pilot programs, including Pererenan, a greenbelt village bordering the edge of the tourism-led construction boom on Bali's west coast. The Merah Putih Hijah recycling plant was built in 2017 by a team of villagers guided by Sean Nino, an environmental consultant from Germany who was raised in Bali.
"Ten years ago when I was writing [an academic] thesis on waste management, I heard about a recycling plant in eastern Bali called Temisi that was reducing the amount of waste going into landfill in the area by 60 [metric] tons per day simply by removing inorganic material from the waste stream and composting the rest," Nino said. "Seventy to 80% of the waste stream here is organic, but it only becomes a problem when it gets mixed with inorganic material."
Nino's initial idea was to replicate the plant at Temisi seven times, siting a plant in each of the eight local government areas in Bali. But after closer study he realized that the Temisi plant was highly inefficient because it separates household waste on site by hand -- a time-consuming task that gobbles up 43% of operating costs.
"The lesson learned from Temisi is that by decentralizing, you can really save on cost. So we decided to build a pilot facility a 20th of Temisi's size in Pererenan," he said. "All we ask households to do is to separate organic and non-organic [waste]. This way we inspire people to make waste their problem instead of just passing on a big ball of gunky, stinky crap to the next person and assuming it is taken care of."
On arrival at the MPH pilot plant, inorganic waste is sorted into seven categories of plastic and eight categories of metal -- 90% of which can be on-sold to scrapyards with the remainder sent to landfill. But organic waste travels no further. "Our challenge is to see how much of the waste stream can be retained," said Nino. "Does it even have to leave the community?"
MPH's circular approach to waste management sees organic waste spread out via a forced-aeration system -- a series of plastic tubes linked to an air blower that can create up to 1.8 metric tons of organic compost a day. Currently, the compost is sold to generate income for the plant. But the longer-term plan is to give it back to farmers to help break their dependence on chemical fertilizers that pollute water sources and slowly deplete the soil of nutrients.
"The guiding principles of our Hindu religion demand [that] people live in harmony with God and nature," said Agung Wiradana, the plant's facility manager. "Our work here is compatible with that."
Despite the simplicity of the system, villagers in Pererenan have yet to show widespread support for the project, with compliance hovering just 100 to 200 of 980 households. Most of the 280 holiday villas in Pererenan are also failing to comply.
Nino, whose private consultancy has helped large hotels in Bali to achieve a 90% reduction in waste going to landfill, attributed the lackluster result to the absence of penalties. "Enforcement is much easier in the corporate world where there are systems and training. But on a social level, it's a much slower and tedious dance," he said.
"Next month we are starting the first wave of socialization events in the village to make [people] aware of the existing law that says households must separate waste. The village authorities also have to power to enforce separation with fines."
Putu Sri Yuniarti, head of waste management at Dinas Lingkungan Hidup dan Kesehatan, Bali's office for environment and health, said education was the key to success. "We are targeting students through our mobile Waste Bank Education program," she said. We go to schools to mentor students about separation, then collect the separated waste they bring.
Yuniarti added: "Our plan is to create waste banks like the one in Pererenan in every village in Bali. But the government cannot possibly solve the waste problem by itself, which is why we are advocating for a community-based approach. Some villages have already started to build plants of their own but are being held back by the lack of finance and technology.
Nino is confident that the MPH model is the most viable solution to the threat posed by rubbish to Bali's tourist-based economy, and is determined to have the plant at Pererenan and two further pilot plants in Bali running at full capacity by the end of the year.
"If everyone embraced our message of separation, there would be no more garbage going into the rivers or landing on the beaches, because it would no longer be stinky and no longer be waste," he said.
I Nyoman Susudah, head of Pererenan Bumdes, a village-owned business that is working with MPH, is more cautious, warning that change is unlikely to happen quickly. "People here been throwing their rubbish anywhere they want all their lives," he said. "It's proven very hard to convince them to change their mindset. I am optimistic we can do it, but it's going to take a long time."