The Indonesian island of Lombok, a surfing paradise next to Bali, has a huge plastic problem. Stephanie Conway reports on how surfers are spearheading efforts to outlaw single-use plastics on the island.
The paradise island of Lombok is a lesser-known neighbour to the east of Bali. The 4,800 square kilometer island is best known for its beautiful coastlines and unbeatable surf breaks for both beginners and pros, who can paddle out and enjoy catching waves alongside friendly locals. It’s often described as an insider’s paradise, for those who dare to venture beyond the typical tourist hotspots.
But beneath the surface of Lombok’s turquoise waters is a huge problem: plastic pollution. Over-consumption, ease of access and a lack of proper recycling facilities or legal restrictions on single-use plastics has led to Indonesia becoming the second biggest contributor to global plastic pollution. 3.22 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in its oceans every year, polluting marine life, infecting waterways, and eventually even ending up in the food people eat.
“I couldn’t stand seeing the effect of plastic waste on mother nature,” says Risman, a local surfer and business owner. After gradually watching piles of single-use plastic trash build up and spoil his beautiful home, he had to do something. That’s why, in July 2019, he founded the Lombok Plastic Free group together with a few local and expatriate surfer friends.
United by a passion for removing plastics from the oceans and protecting precious marine life and natural resources, the group has developed into a movement on the island. “Each individual gives their best, and works together to support our mission of making Lombok plastic free,” says Risman. “Our team is made up of volunteers who work together in a certain programme. We don't have a definite structure of organisation, it's more like collective work among members.” The goal? To pass a law banning single-use plastics from Lombok.
The plastic problem in Indonesia is inescapable. Throughout the nation of 17,000 islands, beaches are peppered with the remnants of polystyrene cups and plastic wrappers that have been improperly disposed of and left to poison the local environment. Indonesia creates 175,000 tons of waste per day, 14% of which (24,500 tons) is made of plastic. According to the World Bank’s Indonesia Marine Debris Hotspots Rapid Assessment, 20% of plastic waste in Indonesia finds its way into rivers and coastal waters. This means that the Indonesian archipelago’s approximate 81,000 kilometres of coastline, hosting a variety of biodiverse marine ecosystems, is at the mercy of plastic pollution.
Although Indonesia is the second-largest global producer of waste behind China, the government is only slowly acknowledging the gravity of its waste problem. Lack of resources and corruption are two major obstacles that will be difficult to contend with. It will take a collective effort to develop the infrastructure needed for waste separation and recycling to take place. The local community will need to relearn the dangers of plastics and how to properly dispose of them. Even today, local people often use fires to get rid of their waste, poisoning the air with toxic fumes from burning plastics. Driving through Lombok, you can immediately smell the distinct clouds of smoke from burning rubbish on the sides of the road. “Most people still think that when you burn the trash, it goes away,” says Nine, a founding member, based in the Netherlands. “They don’t realise that now it’s microplastic, and it will be deposited in our soil, air, ocean. The fish in the ocean get the microplastic in their body and we eat the fish so in the end, the microplastic is all around us, which infects our environment and can end up in our body.”
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In 2019, neighbouring Bali welcomed over 16 million tourists to its island, which up until the pandemic has been one of the main contributors to the island’s economy. But this mass tourism caused Bali’s government to declare a waste emergency towards the end of 2017. 100 tons of waste had to be removed from the island’s popular beaches. This led to the 2019 ban of single-use plastic on the island. But getting Bali’s government to take action meant proving its adverse affect on tourism - a huge contributor to Bali’s economy. Tourists have always been drawn to Bali for its perfect coastlines with vibrant marine life, and instead found islands of plastic waste floating across its beaches - which ended up being documented on social media, damaging the island’s image to future holiday makers. It took a number of local organisations to bring this issue to the government’s attention and get the laws put in place to enact change.
“We don’t want that happening in Lombok,” says Anton, one of the co-founders. “We have to fight for our island.” Lombok has been positioned as the ‘next Bali’ in terms of tourism, with major hotel developments popping up throughout the island, as well as the planned MotoGP World Championship, through the $3 billion Mandalika Project in the southern town of Kuta. The lesson needs to be learned: mass tourism brings mass waste. Lombok Plastic Free intends to highlight this lesson to the government of Lombok, to ensure the same laws are passed on this island before it’s too late.
In a statement, Lombok Plastic Free says that their "short-term vision is to spread awareness about the global plastic crisis. Our intention is to reduce plastic waste by making people realise the impact of their behaviour in terms of plastic. That accounts for both locals and tourists of Lombok - every single one of us! We believe that awareness of personal responsibility is the next step on the way to our main goal: a municipal law to restrict single-use plastic." Lombok Plastic Free has also launched a petition to help direct the government’s attention towards their cause. “If we want the government’s attention, we’ll need at least 100,000 signatures,” admits Anton.
The group often organises protest paddle-outs, community beach clean-ups and educational events to teach members of the local communities about the dangers of single-use plastic for the environment and encourage water-supply alternatives for local businesses to help encourage sustainable drinking water solutions. During the rainy season, when further trash is washed into the oceans, the group organises nets at local river mouths to prevent plastic debris from polluting nature further. You will even find them going to local hotels and restaurants to invite the owners to replace their plastic straws with bamboo alternatives. The beach clean-up events bring in over a hundred participants consisting of locals, expatriates and well-meaning tourists, all willing to get their hands dirty to clean up the beaches. But the group understands that it will take more than just beach clean-ups to solve the root of the plastic problem in Lombok. “We can only gain momentum by working together with other grass-roots organisations towards common goals,” says Risman. “The louder the noise we make, the closer we’ll be to getting the government’s attention.”
“So far the reaction has been awesome,” says Risman. “We’re basically mediating between the local community and directing them to be more self-empowered. The key is we help the community to organise.” The group have also proven that they are willing to step in to help the community in times of need. Heavy rain on the island in early February of this year left many local families, already financially struggling due to a dramatic drop in tourism due to the Covid-19 pandemic, facing further challenges. In response, the group teamed up with another charitable organisation, Lombok Aid, to raise donations of over 200 million Indonesian rupiah (approximately £10,000) to help rebuild damaged homes, provide food and safe drinking water, and deliver an anti-mosquito fogging technique in drenched areas to prevent locals from becoming vulnerable to contracting diseases such as malaria or dengue fever.
From an official level, In March 2019, Indonesia joined the Global Plastic Action Partnership as the first nation to align with the National Plastic Action Partnership – an inclusive and solutions-driven approach to solving the challenge of plastic pollution. However, on a regional level, nothing seems to have happened on behalf of the government in Lombok. Lombok Plastic Free has taken the initiative that the government is currently either unable or not prepared to. But Risman and his friends are in this for the long-haul. “We’re seeing the big picture, aiming higher and not getting disheartened in the small steps,” says Risman. “We have to keep going.”