Ocean Currents

Recycling: Bali Style


We have a clear choice when it comes to plastic in our ocean. If we do nothing, plastic production will double in the next 10 years, and so will the amount that enters our ocean. If we act now, we can cut the amount of plastic entering our ocean by nearly half. The solution is clear: implementing waste management infrastructure in countries where the economic growth is outpacing the ability to manage waste.

As we researched our new report, Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean, we stopped in Indonesia and met with Olivier Pouillon, Founder of The Bali Recycling Company to talk about his insights about waste management and recycling in the region.

Below is a Q&A between Emily Woglom, Vice President, Conservation Policy and Programs and Olivier Pouillon, Founder of The Bali Recycling Company.

Q: What inspired your passion for recycling and waste issues?

A: I first got into this work back in 1991 when I was in school in Indonesia. I had to do an independent report and I was trying to figure out what topic to focus on. Waste was becoming a big issue here because plastic bottles were just starting to come into Bali and there was pretty much zero waste service.

“Since there wasn’t a lot of plastic at first, everyone just threw it over their wall or into the river as they would with organic waste. Before plastic, everything was wrapped in a banana leaf or some other biodegradable thing. It didn’t matter where you threw it when you were done.”

My second major push was back when they had the climate conference here at the end of 2007. I spoke with a lot of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who were visiting for the conference, telling them about the waste problem and asking them to use their presence to catalyze awareness and possibly influence the hotels they were staying at. It was really frustrating because no one wanted to bring up the issue. They were worried about getting into trouble. That really showed an incongruity, where you had these folks and they didn’t understand that the waste issue was really connected to the climate change issue, especially in Indonesia.

“Waste is a pervasive, ubiquitous problem in our own backyards. Everyone deals with it, from the richest person to the poorest person.”

If your point is to get people to understand environmental issues and the bigger climate issue, you have to start with basics. If you can’t solve the waste problem, which, if compared to the climate issue is a piece of cake, we’re in trouble.

Q: What are your main goals for the Bali Recycling Company?

A: The first objective was to prove that you could actually set up a waste management and recycling company and operate in a green way. We created a viable business that cleans up the island and deals with the waste. The next phase is about how to scale it. Indonesia is growing fast and adopting new technologies like mobile phones. The mobile phone, especially the smart phone, has become a basic tool in doing just about everything here. It’s become a really good platform to tell people about recycling and trash management.

“There are many countries around the world that don’t have an adequate waste system. How do we make a platform where people can plug in and solve their trash problem?”

So we’re hoping to take our app, “CashforTrash [1],” and have people use it in Indonesia and beyond. The app’s goal is to streamline material interactions from use through disposal, and has two main functions. One is to serve as a platform to get people information on what they can sell for recycling and what the current market price is for these materials, since prices often change. The second part of the app helps connect the user with the people and places that will either buy the waste or help properly dispose of it.

“We offer collection services. Cities and towns don’t force residents to pay for waste services; it’s more voluntary here. There’s no system that we can draw from when asking for an increased waste management budget.”

Many people are still paying around 50 cents/month for waste collection and that hasn’t changed in 10 years. CashforTrash was designed to lead to a “fair trash” system, much like the fair trade moniker. We know how to recycle some low value materials, but it can be hard to get to people to collect these items. We can encourage people to donate for example $1 for collection of 1 kilogram of waste, and then we can add “fair trash” labels to upcycled bottles. We would then create a market for these bottles and can recover the investments back through the marketable upcycled products.

Q: What are some of the Bali Recycling Company’s major accomplishments?

A: Our major accomplishment has been turning this idea into a profitable business in a very difficult environment. I got some inspiration from Silicon Valley’s Steve Blank, and adopted tech startup concepts to the waste problem. With internet-based businesses, you can tweak things daily to respond to new ideas and issues. With waste in Indonesia, it can take weeks if not months, but the startup concepts can be applied.

The hotels that we’ve worked with that have changed their practices and incorporated it into their budget realize quickly that this system is better. Hotels know how much they spend on employees, electricity, water, food and how much revenue they collect from guests, but when it came to waste, they have no idea what their actual losses looked like. Though the hotels saw an initial jump in their monthly costs, they realized they were actually saving money once they took into consideration all of the secondary costs that they hadn’t been considering before, like lost cutlery and other value materials that ended up in the waste stream.

Q: What hurdles have you encountered in your work?

A: There are so many hurdles. Just dealing with logistics can be very complicated. But one of the biggest hurdles remains how the waste problem is perceived. Often people think it’s all about education. The reality is that without an infrastructure system to backup what you’re telling people, you’re wasting your time. You can tell people to sort and recycle, and they can listen to you, but if there’s no system to plug into it’s of no use.

Q: Do you have any thoughts or recommendations for lifting the profile and importance of recycling and waste management in Indonesia and other rapidly developing economies?

A: Waste management work, especially in the informal waste sector, generally has a negative perception. But CashforTrash adds technology―which is trendy―to the job which can help raise its profile.

Waste isn’t really a priority among citizens or the governments in many emerging economies. Among the general public, people don’t really want to think about it. As you move up in economic level, you can pay someone else to deal with it so you don’t have to. Even if you see it outside your walls while driving, as long as it’s off your property it’s not your problem.

It’s really just about changing the collective mindset to view waste as a resource that has to be reallocated. Waste is a completely man -ade concept. We’re the only thing on the planet that creates trash. Every other organism’s “waste” is food for something else, or the start of another process. And that’s how we have to think.

Q: Do you see a connection between work and ocean health?

A: Absolutely. There is a lot of focus on cleaning up the beaches and oceans, but that’s more about dealing with the symptoms than the cause. The waste doesn’t magically appear in the ocean; it’s land-based. The reason it’s ending up in the ocean is because there isn’t a land-based system to handle it. People will clean up one day, but it will accumulate on the beach again by the next morning. In the U.S., a beach cleanup may keep the beach clean for a good amount of time. But here, by the next morning it can look like nothing was done the day before.

Q: Anything else you want people to know?

A: Through this work, we’ve discovered that to make anything environmentally sustainable, it also has to be economically sustainable. It’s necessary to create solutions that produce jobs as well as clean up the environment. Solving a problem is all about utilizing different perspectives to find the best solutions for the problem.

It’s important to know what your “customer” wants. You have to get out of the building and talk to the people living this life. Understanding what hurdles they are facing and what they see as answers can be very informative.


[1] The app will soon be renamed “Gringgo”

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