Conscious Living

What’s In the Water?

Our Global Waste Problem

& What We Can Do About It

A trash pile on the shore of Balangan Beach in Bali, Indonesia. Heaps like this are burned routinely as one of the most common forms of waste management on the island.

A trash pile on the shore of Balangan Beach in Bali, Indonesia. Heaps like this are burned routinely as one of the most common forms of waste management on the island.

It’s awesome to see that this year’s Earth Day was all about plastic pollution awareness, microplastics, ocean degradation and waste management issues. We encountered this problem daily while traveling through Southeast Asia in 2017, and it was eye opening. What struck us most – outside of the kind people we met, the gorgeous scenery, warm cultures and inspiring relics we had the fortune to explore – was litter, practically everywhere, and namely: plastic.

We first encountered the monster in Bali. It was my birthday. We had just landed 24 hours prior after flying across the world from Boston to Denpasar, surviving a harrowing lightning storm and the joys of three consecutive flights. We rested up and set off to spend our first day exploring the Island of the Gods. Months earlier, I had declared to my husband that all I wanted to do on my birthday was swim in the Indian Ocean, and I had been imagining the moment ever since. So, we set out to make that happen.

Denpasar is the main international airport in Bali, and a stone’s throw from the famed surf haven, Kuta Beach. We left our hotel and strolled through the busy downtown, past store after store brimming with cheap boardwalk style souvenirs. We’d read ahead of time that Kuta is known as a westernized party town, but also learning that it’s a surfer’s paradise, we planned to spend a few days there before heading off to quiet Canggu. We’d also read that travelers to Kuta have a reputation for being a bit “trashy,” but what was really trashed, it turned out, was the beach!

We got to Bali during rainy season (we arrived in January – the wet season is October - April), which partially accounts for the exorbitant amount of waste we discovered scattered across the beach as far as you could see. The sand was littered top to bottom with all manner of garbage: straws, plastic bags, flip flops, food wrappers, bottles, cups, broken glass, beer bottles, and plenty of other unidentifiable debris. We were more than a little grossed out, but still determined to take a dip in the ocean. It turned out that meant swimming through a sea of garbage. All the same types of waste found on the beach, and more, floated by, swirled around, and flowed in and out on every wave making it actually impossible to be in the water without having trash touching some part of our bodies.

Beach goers wade past mounds of trash after a beach clean up in Kuta, Bali, to enjoy some of the island's best surf. During the rainy season, garbage washes ashore in Bali after it's swept in from other nearby islands. Beach litter is further compounded by the island's waste problem, in which garbage is frequently left on roadsides near waterways, eventually seeping into rivers and streams that lead to the sea.

Beach goers wade past mounds of trash after a beach clean up in Kuta, Bali, to enjoy some of the island's best surf. During the rainy season, garbage washes ashore in Bali after it's swept in from other nearby islands. Beach litter is further compounded by the island's waste problem, in which garbage is frequently left on roadsides near waterways, eventually seeping into rivers and streams that lead to the sea.

We didn’t last very long, and struggled with seeing other beach goers playing Frisbee, swimming and surfing as if nothing was wrong.

How could we let this become the new normal?

We all knew that trash on the beach wasn't dumped there by some malicious company, or left behind by any one person or elusive malcontent. It couldn't possibly. So, that meant it wasn’t really anyone’s trash, but it was everyone’s. Ultimately, we couldn't pretend we weren’t swimming through the contents of a trash bag, and exited the ocean dejected, near tears.

We walked a little further down the beach, but just seeing more of the same, headed back to our hotel disgusted, disturbed and heartbroken by what we'd seen washing in and out of shore.

That night and the months that followed we poured over stats on ocean pollution, litter, and waste management programs in Southeast Asia. What we discovered both through our experience and research was that organized waste management and recycling programs were sorely lacking in the region. Not coincidentally, a 2015 report from the Ocean Conservancy found that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand are the five countries responsible for half of all plastic leaked into the ocean globally.

An insightful mural at Old Man's in Canggu, Bali.

An insightful mural at Old Man's in Canggu, Bali.

Our research also confirmed resoundingly that throwaway plastics are a serious problem. The type of trash we saw most often from the beaches of Bali, Indonesia, and Borneo, Malaysia, to the streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Phuket, Thailand, was food packaging waste: candy wrappers, straws, chip bags, bottles, drink pouches, and so on. They were everywhere.

These flimsy pieces of plastic aluminum composites are some of the most difficult to recycle because there is little market for their reuse. There are innovative companies out there like Terracycle who collect these items and turn them into new products, but these types of solutions are not yet the norm, and in some cases it can still cost the consumer to recycle, making these services inaccessible to those with lower incomes.

Hard to recycle plastics aside, we learned that recycling programs in high volume, tourist heavy regions of Southeast Asia are few and far between. Further research revealed that developing countries often lack the resources and infrastructure to provide widespread waste disposal services in general, which has in turn led to a lack of local knowledge on how to recycle properly.

As a result, in many parts of the developing world trash is either left on the side of the road in open basins or in plastic bags that are shredded by dogs, cats, monitor lizards and other hungry critters prior to collection, dropped into waterways, brought to illegal dumps, littered, or burned. Burning garbage as a way to eliminate it was the most frequent disposal method we saw. Families, farmers, and business owners alike all practiced it. The smell of burning plastic was a constant and familiar scent throughout our travels across the region. That smell hurts on so many levels and definitely isn’t good for you.

Trash awaiting collection on the side of the road in Bali is perched precariously beside a water run off that leads directly to the Indian Ocean.

Trash awaiting collection on the side of the road in Bali is perched precariously beside a water run off that leads directly to the Indian Ocean.

While these disposal methods would still pose environmental problems even if most of our waste were biodegradable, the majority of trash is inorganic. Plastic can take 400 years to decompose, and burning plastic mixed with household trash releases harmful gases such as dioxin and furan that are highly toxic to humans.

All this said, we see a clear and positive shift in recent times where more people the world over  are tackling this harrowing issue; from articles in the mainstream media to viral videos revealing the plastic epidemic and it’s toll on our oceans. In 2018, we know that ocean pollution is the result of our global failure to effectively dispose of waste, and with that realization we also have the opportunity to make lasting and powerful changes. 

Of course, in the areas most affected, people have been combatting pollution for years. Today, it seems these issues and the organizations fighting to alleviate them are finally getting the attention they deserve.

It turned out the trash heap we discovered in Kuta isn’t necessarily the norm year round, but is commonly found during the rainy season when waste left on roadsides is swept into rivers that flow out to sea where it mingles with garbage that washes up from nearby countries and islands. In response to these widespread issues, many organizations are dedicated to reclaiming Bali’s beaches, improving waste disposal services, and educating locals on how they can help. The country has even introduced a plastic bag ban beginning this year.

When we returned to Kuta three weeks later, we headed back to the beach with the intention of documenting what we saw there in January. To our great surprise, there had been a massive beach cleanup. Instead of trash littered across the sand and waves, we saw huge piles of neatly collected garbage lined up and down the beach, awaiting disposal.

It was an incredible feeling to know that all that garbage was once floating freely in the Indian Ocean, and heartening to realize that with awareness and passion, a positive impact can be made.

We feel that if we are to improve the situation, it’s important to know the facts so that we can take responsibility for our actions. In the spirit of Know Stone Unturned, the remainder of this article explores some of the data we collected through our research on this topic, and offers a list of 10 easy ways you can combat plastic pollution with every day choices.

Care for a swim? One rubbish pile among dozens lining Kuta Beach after a massive clean up in February 2017.

Care for a swim? One rubbish pile among dozens lining Kuta Beach after a massive clean up in February 2017.

THE STATS: THE PROBLEM WITH PLASTIC

  • The adult human body is composed of 60% water. Without it, the average person will die in just 3-4 days. Yet, 1 in 9 people around the world lack access to safe drinking water, while 1.8 billion people drink water contaminated with feces.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that half of the world’s population will be living in water stressed areas by 2025.
  • For millions of people around the world, the solution to unsafe drinking water is the plastic bottle. Even in regions with access to potable tap water, consuming bottled beverages, usually out of convenience, has become the norm. But our global addiction to ready-made and ‘disposable’ goods is only serving to further foul our waterways.
  • Ironically, producing a bottle of water takes about 6 times the amount of water contained by the end product.
  • In the U.S. alone, the production of water bottles uses 17 million barrels of oil every year. Billions of those bottles then go un-recycled. In fact, 20 billion plastic water bottles wind up in landfills or are incinerated annually.
  • While much of the global waste problem lies in the lack of waste and recycling services in developing countries, developed nations like the United States have just as poor a recycling record. It’s no secret that the U.S. is the biggest producer of waste worldwide. Americans generate nearly 625,000 tons of waste per day, yet our recycling rate is only 35%
  • Even more critical than the lack of services and the dominance of throwaway culture, is our broad disconnection from water consumption and waste production. Water coming out of the tap feels infinite, while trash picked up curbside seems like it’s got a place to go that we never need to think about. Of course, that’s just not true. For all the water on earth, 97% is contained in our oceans, leaving only 3% to fresh water sources (much of which remains in the polar ice caps). And while the oceans absorb about 40% of CO2 emissions, marine plants produce 70% of our oxygen.
  • Life on earth is in many ways sustained by the ocean. We now have eight million tons of plastic finding its way there annually, and that number is increasing.
  • It’s estimated that by 2025 the ocean may contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish, and that by 2050 we can expect more plastic than fish swimming in the ocean. That’s thanks to the nearly 300 million tons of plastic produced each year, 50% of which is produced for single use.
  • Ready for this: more plastic was produced in the last decade than over the course of the last century.
  • Once out at sea, plastic pollution causes serious harm to marine life and birds that either get caught in webs of trash or ingest plastic thinking its food.
  • While it takes hundreds of years to decompose in water, releasing toxic chemicals in the process, plastic breaks down into small pieces called microplastics that are commonly ingested and absorbed by fish, whales, birds, mussels, sea turtles, and many other walks of marine life. Although some species of fish can expel microplastics, most marine animals cannot. For them, ingesting plastics causes a false feeling of being full, which is often fatal.
  • Like eating seafood? You might want to know that every year fish in the North Pacific Ocean ingest 12,000 – 24,000 tons of plastic.
  • As the chemicals found in plastics and metals move up the food chain, they eventually surface in the grocery store, at restaurants, and ultimately on our plates.
  • At this point, the long-standing effects of ingesting microplastics and the chemicals they release are unknown. What we do know is that what affects one area of the food chain affects the entire food chain, and humans are at the top.
 

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: WHAT WE CAN DO TO REDUCE PLASTIC POLLUTION

Water, like air, is constantly cycling. It doesn’t belong to any one person, company, country or town, but to us all. In the same way that water belongs to all of us, so does water pollution. Luckily, everyone can reduce his or her plastic consumption by consciously using less plastic. It’s that simple!

Below are 10 tips on making the switch.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning we may earn a small commission if you make a purchase from this website, helping to support our work at no additional cost to you. We only link to products that we believe in, and truthfully review all products we’ve used.

Klean Kanteen Bottles

1. Say No to Plastic Bottles

The average American uses 173 plastic water bottles each year, but you can avoid this with a reusable canteen. Insulated bottles like Klean Kanteens keep drinks icy cold or toasty warm for hours. The stainless steel interior is easy to clean, too, so you can use it for a variety of beverages. We've had ours for several years, and you can see that they have held up and are well loved.

Photo by PhotoDreamWorldArt

2. Bye, Bye Plastic Bags

Did you know that 100 million plastic bags are used every minute, but usually for only 15 minutes before they’re tossed? There are so many reusable bags out there to help curb the waste. We love those that fit easily in your purse, backpack, or pocket, like Baggu. Their design minimizes fabric waste, and can be shipped back to the company for recycling at the end of their lives.

Home Made Produce and Bulk Food Bags

3. Ditch Plastic Produce Bags

Go the extra mile by foregoing plastic produce bags found at most grocery stores. Check out Life Without Plastic’s food bags for bread, produce, rice, etc. They even have one for your sandwich! I started making my own produce bags out of excess fabric, old shirts, etc. You don’t need a sewing machine for this fun project and they’re a great gift to give, too!

Plastic Drinking Straws and Cups

4. Avoid Plastic Drinking Straws

500 million one-time use plastic straws are thrown away every day in the U.S. You can combat this by choosing a re-useable option when you need one, and letting restaurant staff know you don’t require a straw with your drink. Durable metal straws are a great fit for individuals and restaurants.

Reusable Mugs

5. Opt for a Reusable Mug

Bring a reusable mug to your favorite coffee shop. Often times, brewers give discounts for bringing your own cup! It's easy to find reusable coffee mugs these days, which is great. Klean Kanteen has a good option here as well, including a coffee style lid. If you’re not in the market for another canteen, a re-usable mason jar lid works, too.

 

Abeego Plastic Free Food Wrapper

6. Switch to Plastic-Free Food Storage

Plastic food containers are unhealthy for the environment and humans, too. Research continues to show that chemicals in plastic food containers can leach into food, especially when heated, and have been linked to hormone disorders, diseases and even cancer. Life Without Plastic’s online store is a great resource for food storage containers. We’re obsessed with their plastic free food wraps: pliable, compostable, beeswax wrappers that replace wasteful plastic wrap.

Microbeads Flushed Down the Drain

7. Cut Out Microbeads

Microbeads are non-biodegradable microplastics found frequently in personal care products ranging from toothpaste to face cleansers. Sewage systems are unable to filter them, which means they ultimately wash into our oceans where they become unrecoverable and are often absorbed by marine life. Beat The Microbead lists the products that do and don’t contain them.

Plastic Food Packaging

8. Avoid Packaged Foods

When you need a snack on the go, opt for munchies that aren't pre-wrapped in plastic. (A challenge, we know!) Generally speaking, non-packaged foods are healthier for you, anyway. So this is ultimately a win-win.

I'm A Trash Hero

9. Talk About It

Talking about these issues and sharing the facts is critical to making change. Make a post on social media, tell your loved ones why you recycle, show off your reusable bags at the grocery store. All these things get people thinking, and when it comes to sustainability, awareness is key. Spread the love through the word.

Reduce Reuse Recycle

10. Last But Not Least...

 

 

REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE...with Reduce being the key word! Encourage others to do the same, from friends and family, to your workplace, apartment complex, town, and local school system.

CONCLUSIONS

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth said it best when he explained,

“The pollution of the planet is only an outward reflection of an inner psychic pollution:

millions of unconscious individuals not taking responsibility for their inner space.”

These words truly speak to the essence of global pollution. If we want to remain a healthy species, care for our world, and offer future generations the beautiful earth we enjoy today, we must become conscious consumers. If shortsightedness is the greatest challenge of our times, then we need to start playing the long game. Change will not arrive by someone else’s doing, but from our own.

The tail of a humpback whale and accompanying spray off of Boston Harbor in New England.

The tail of a humpback whale and accompanying spray off of Boston Harbor in New England.

Visiting: Serenity Eco Guesthouse & Yoga - Canggu, Bali

INDONESIA

Located in Canggu, home to some of Bali’s premiere surf, international restaurants, co-working spaces, temples, tattoo studios, shopping and nightlife, Serenity Eco Guesthouse focuses on just that: Serenity. Only a five-minute walk to Batu Balong Beach, quietly tucked away from the noisy beaches in Kuta, while still being 45-minutes from the airport and an hour to Ubud, Serenity is a sanctuary for travelers looking for an affordable, quiet, nourishing and soulful space to rest their heads.

While planning our trip to Asia we scoured the web for insight on where to stay in Bali, poring over reviews of beaches, neighborhoods and accommodations until we found Serenity, which promised to provide the perfect mix of location, activities and health food we sought. Though we had only planned to stay five days at the guesthouse, it didn’t take long for us to extend our stay. In total, we spent about five weeks here in five different room types on two occasions, bookending our trip with plenty of yoga, clean food, relaxation and beach time. We recommend staying at least five days to truly soak up all Serenity has to offer. For a closer look at the guesthouse watch our video tour.

 

AFFORDABLE ACCOMMODATION IN A BEAUTIFUL SETTING

Founded by owners Daniel & Yatna on their personal property in 2009, this family run business now has dozens of employees and three additional branches of guest rooms in short walking distance from the main complex.

Despite increased demand for rooms, the guesthouse never feels crowded. The yoga studios are spacious, guests are always willing to share a table in the health conscious Alkaline Restaurant, and the gorgeous pool is surrounded by plenty of seating. Every room is equipped with a safety box, and comes either with full or discounted breakfast. Guests are invited to store food in shared refrigerators, and a shuttle service is provided between the main house and branches for added convenience.

While eco resorts may feel out of reach for many budget travelers, Serenity instills the feeling that sustainability is achievable for everyone, and at a reasonable price. Presently, Serenity’s dorms cost about $10 a night, and private rooms range from $15 - $30 per night. Check out their website for the most up to date prices.

 

YOGA & WELLNESS

The guesthouse pays careful attention to wellness for the body, mind, spirit, and environment. A dozen yoga and meditation classes are scheduled daily. Taught by Balinese, Indonesian and international teachers, classes range from ashtanga, mysore, hatha, yin, and various vinyasas, to yoga for surfers, chakra flows, aerial yoga, life coaching workshops, gong meditation, acroyoga and more. A meditation room, massage, surf lessons, bicycle and motorbike rentals are also available.

A variety of 100% organic, natural and mindful oriented products are sold on-site, including: virgin coconut oil, mosquito repellent, activated bamboo charcoal (a detoxing purifier), reusable straws, sunscreen, and books on consciousness.

Serenity’s Alkaline Restaurant offers an organic menu filled with raw, vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free items. Meat options, are available, too. Super foods abound, from electrolyte packed coconuts, to iron-rich moringa (a native plant grown on-site), to wheatgrass shots, turmeric juice, a variety of homemade detox juices, multiple brands of locally made kombucha in many flavors (including Serenity’s very own), alkaline water, and divine cacao bars made in Ubud, to name a few. Daily and weekly specials add even more variety. But best of all, it’s obvious the food is made with love.

 

SUSTAINABILITY – ADDRESSING BALI’S DESPERATE NEED

Sustainability is another of Serenity’s core values, and this is seen throughout the property, from the banyan tree that stands at the entrance, to the composting and recycling bins placed throughout the common areas, the cleaning products used, the array of eco-friendly goods sold on-site, and the reminders in every space to reduce energy use.

The growing movement toward eco-tourism is of international importance, and especially in rapidly developing areas like Bali where there is little pre-existing infrastructure to handle the intense growth and resulting waste generated by the industry. A shortage of waste management systems coupled with a lack of community awareness on how to properly dispose of mass quantities of garbage – 20,000 cubic meters of trash is discarded daily – is a huge problem in Bali, and notably so in the beach communities. It’s estimated that seventy-five percent of trash is not collected by official services, meaning it’s likely burned, washed into waterways, or otherwise illegally dumped. This problem is only exacerbated by the large quantities of non-biodegradable trash produced by the booming tourism sector.

In 2016, Bali hosted close to 5 million foreign tourists, a number that surpassed the island’s total population in 2014. While the industry has a positive impact on Bali’s economy, mass tourism takes a serious toll on the paradisiacal environment, which is one of the very reasons travelers make the trip to the ‘island of the gods' in the first place. Offering over 6,000 hotels on 2,175 square miles, the tourist industry absorbs approximately 65% of Bali’s total water supply, with four- and five-star hotels requiring at least 50,000 liters of clean water every day, according to the Bali Hotel Association. Despite the stresses tourism puts on the island, the Balinese remain welcoming of tourists, and an increasing number of organizations are cropping up to combat the problem.

While the hotel business, in particular, is in desperate need of improvement, this is an area where Serenity truly shines. The Eco Guesthouse offers conscious travelers the ability to be good stewards in their host country by making a positive impact on the local environment, while still having fun, eating well, and staying in budget.

Serenity boasts a number of sustainable practices focused on reducing, reusing and recycling. Rather than burning trash and grass, they compost organic waste, and recycle used plastic bottles and paper at Eco Bali. Many other items are reused, too, including glass, scrap wood and plastic bags. Local building materials, bamboo, and plastic bottles are used in the infrastructure, and gorgeous works of art are created from broken materials that would be otherwise trashed. Inorganic waste is further reduced by the restaurant, which provides biodegradable takeaway boxes.

At Serenity, water is saved by staggering linen washes in guest rooms. Drying linens in the sun further reduces energy. Low energy light bulbs and natural septic tanks are also used.

The charming grounds incorporate permaculture gardens, an organic nursery, a wastewater garden, and organic worm farm. The gardens provide a variety of fresh fruit and medicinal herbs, and incorporate homemade organic fertilizers. They are kept mosquito and pest free by growing neem, lemongrass and zodiac, and by using garlic spray and neem oil instead of toxic chemicals.

In addition to all this, the staff makes a point of using eco-friendly products for their dish and linen washing, and to keep their beautiful swimming pool clean and pristine. Guests are asked to do their part by washing off inorganic sunscreen and bug sprays before entering the pool, hanging their towels out to dry, composting, recycling, and reducing energy by turning off lights, AC and fans when not in use.

At Serenity, you know sustainability is a team effort in which we all play a part. As a guest, patron at the Alkaline Café, or a student in a yoga class, you know that you are part of a movement to make a positive impact on the world while minimizing your global footprint.

 

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

When you stay at Serenity you know you're helping to care for the world while taking care of yourself. The feeling you get throughout your visit is one of mindfulness and intention. The thoughtful, friendly staff, artful attention to detail – from the yin-yangs, murals, and mirror mosaics, to the labeling of plants and information on super foods placed around the restaurant – and intuitive sense of sustainability and well-being that permeates the guesthouse all contribute to the peaceful atmosphere, making it a wonderful place to reflect, relax and grow.

 

SNAPSHOTS