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Meeting with a Real Trash Hero on the Island of the Gods

trash hero
Wayan Aksara, Chairman of Trash Hero Indonesia.

To be at the service of the environment is to serve God,” says a priest in the short footage depicting a beach cleanup in Saba, East of Bali Island that Wayan Aksara, Chairman of Trash Hero Indonesia, plays on his computer as an introduction to the purpose of his association.

This ex-tour operator and travel agent knows a thing or two about how to motivate his fellow islanders to keep the tourist side of Bali clean and attractive.

It all started some years ago when, as a guide, he kept hearing holiday-makers complaining about the sight of beautiful Bali beaches spoilt by garbage.

“I was so sorry. Wherever we’d go, we’d see trash everywhere. Back then, nobody really cared about pollution. When tourists wanted to take a picture, I’d clean the area prior to the shoot. It was so embarrassing,” recalls the citizen of Gianyar, who’s also a photographer and gamelan musician.

As in other parts of Indonesia, Bali’s development that’s been fuelled by tourism has triggered a fast-growing economy along with the population. These pollution issues are not really taken into serious account by the government and voters alike. Worst still, garbage collection services, and infrastructure have never been up to the task of dealing with this growing problem as the years have progressed.

Real Trash Hero on the Island of the Gods

In 2017, Wayan Aksara decided to join Trash Hero, the Swiss-based NGO, by creating the Saba chapter after contacting their local office in Ubud. As they say about their actions around the world, Trash Hero is “a volunteer-led movement that drives change within communities”. Something the typical Balinese would always easily understand, he adds with a smile.

The keywords here are “clean and reduce”, explains the father of two, who quickly became the chairman of Trash Hero Indonesia, being the first local to take over after previous foreign management of the association. Consequently, it grew and now boasts 70 chapters in the archipelago, up from the 20 in operation when he took office in 2018.

Bali is the place with the most Trash Hero chapters in Indonesia, totaling 27 agencies. It has been a quick expansion, he recalls, proud of how the Balinese population has responded to the programs launched by the NGO. It’s about time, too. Even with the ban on foreign tourists imposed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bali beaches are still tainted with plastic trash in huge amounts.

“There’s a plastic problem in Bali. We need time to solve it, but we’ve started already. Big things start from small things,” he continues with optimism about his duty as a chairman; a “whole new world” for him, he confides. Action and education are the only tools at his hands, he reckons. But, as awareness rises, civil society groups like Trash Hero are playing an important role in keeping beaches and temples free from rubbish.

Real Trash Hero on the Island of the Gods

Trash Hero has developed numerous programs centered on the involvement of communities and their education at the same time. “We clean, we educate, we change” – a motto that fits well into Indonesian minds, particularly in Bali, he explains. Indeed, Balinese culture is no stranger to these concepts.

Wayan Aksara soon reminds us of the Balinese principles of Tri Hita Karana, which focus on the respect due to God, fellow humans, and nature. “Maybe we’d rather direct our prayers first towards nature instead of God because if we serve nature, we also serve humans and the Almighty,” he notes.

On a larger scale, more than 8 million tons of plastics are dumped into the ocean each year, with China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand as the top five culprits. It is now of the utmost importance to reduce the use of plastic, explains the chairman. “Recycling is not the perfect solution, as we all know,” he adds.

The prosperity brought by the tourism industry on the island has also stimulated the purchasing power of the population. Hence, the mushrooming of minimarts in even far-flung villages that have also added to the damage done by this particular plastic pollution, killing local warung in the process after only a couple of years.

Tracing the origins of plastic pollution on Bali’s beaches is not an easy task; experts estimate that about 80 percent comes from the island itself. Indeed, rubbish collected from villages by pemulung, or scavengers, is often dumped in rivers when it represents no value. The trash is then carried out to sea, ready to spoil beaches on the resort island coastline.

The other side of the problem is the desperate need for Bali to improve the efficiency of its landfill sites and invest in more recycling facilities. However, as Wayan Aksara has often mentioned during his tenure, to reduce people’s consumption would be a better step.

Educating the Balinese masses about the danger of plastic pollution for human health is at the core of Trash Hero’s actions on the island. Wayan Aksara and his team often go to schools, villages, and Banjar to spread the word. “If we show a good example by always cleaning places first, we are no cleaning service,” he adds with a smile.

Indeed, Trash Hero Indonesia means to inspire, but not to force anyone. It seems to work pretty well as, like Wayan Aksara explains, “they quickly feel ashamed if we, the yellow t-shirts, are the only ones to do the cleaning in their premises.”

Real Trash Hero on the Island of the Gods

To educate by setting a good example is indeed meaningful in the villages, but what about the younger generations who are now mostly urbanized? Trash Hero goes into schools, from primary level to universities, and Wayan Aksara also often organizes seminars – now webinars – as a means of socializing their actions across the island and all over Indonesia.

Trash Hero worldwide is also regularly calling on companies to reduce the amount of single-use plastic they produce. The top polluters, like Coca Cola, PepsiCo, or Nestle, must now reveal how much single-use plastic they use, then set targets for reducing their quantity of single-use in the future.

“We aim to bring this new awareness to the people of Bali. It’s our mission to bring a new way of being civilized. There’s no question about going back to the past. We simply need to care more about our environment and reduce our consumption. That’s what Trash Hero is all about,” concludes the chairman.

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