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Plastic for rice: How Bali kept going when travel stopped

Plastic for rice: How Bali kept going when travel stopped

Words: Anne-Marie Hoeve

Photos: Muhammad Fadli

With its stunning natural beauty, Bali tops many a travel wishlist. But when covid put the brakes on arrivals, it soon left islanders struggling – even for food. Drawing inspiration from adversity, Made Janur Yasa found a way to feed the community and clean up his island at the same time.

Nestled between the Indian Ocean and the Java Sea, Bali is a dream destination that has long drawn visitors to its shores, even before its insanely photogenic waterfalls, lush jungles and terraced rice paddies took over our Instagram feeds and captured our collective imaginations. In short, Bali is where we all want to be. And, in 2019, six million of us packed our bags and actually went, eager to experience this tantalising Indonesian island at first hand.

Tourism accounts for 80% of Bali’s economy, so when the pandemic hit and travel ground to a halt, the island was cut off from its main source of income. The effect was widespread and immediate.

Bali’s iconic rice fields are just one of the island’s natural attractions.

Beach bliss in ample amounts.

Made Janur Yasa, owner of a vegan restaurant in the town of Ubud, saw many businesses forced to close their doors. But he is not one to sit still and let a global pandemic get in the way of his natural optimism: “Inside every problem, there is a solution,” he explains, the warmth of his smile emanating from the screen in a video call from his home.

In the post-tourist vacuum, Made noticed that the loss of income meant many around him no longer had money for food. Yet, with no jobs to go to, people suddenly had lots of time. “So why not spend that time cleaning our home – our island?” He’s referring to the volume of plastic accumulating here in recent years, slowly spiralling into a crisis of a different kind – an environmental one.

“The receiver becomes a giver and the giver becomes a receiver”

Made Janur Yasa

“I thought to myself: What if people hand in plastic and get rice?” Made recalls. It would be a way to address both challenges facing the island. The idea for Plastic Exchange was born. The concept of reciprocity is inbuilt: “The receiver becomes a giver and the giver becomes a receiver,” Made says. “In Bali we call this tat twam asi”.

Weighing the plastic at a village exchange event.

The rice handed out is bought from local farmers, helping to support them as well.

It works like this: once a month, villagers can hand in any plastic waste they’ve collected and trade it for rice. The plastic is then picked up and sent to a Java recycling plant. There are no recycling plants on Bali, which is why proper waste management is so difficult here, according to Made. It often ends up in landfill – or littering beaches and roadsides. Money from the sale of the plastic is topped up by private donations to pay for the bags of rice given to the plastic collectors. Buying the rice from local farmers safeguards their livelihoods: “The money needs to circulate in the community to create a circular economy,” Made says.

“Over 700,000 kilos of plastic has been collected and exchanged for 170,000 kilos of rice”

Plastic Exchange also incorporates the traditional Balinese philosophy of life called tri hita karana, which identifies three basic elements required for happiness: dignity, prosperity and living in harmony with nature. Through this initiative, locals maintain their dignity by being able to feed their families, prosperity flows into the community via local farmers, and with less plastic, nature can thrive once more.

The idea caught on, and today 200 villages across the island are joining in. Over 700,000 kilos of plastic has been collected and exchanged for 170,000 kilos of rice since the first event in May, 2020. 

Locals look forward to the collection days. At the latest event, mother Anak Agung Rai Sukarmini arrives with her daughter on the back of a motorcycle laden with plastic. “Iʼm so happy to be able to contribute to the cleanliness of my village environment,” Anak says.

“Before, there was so much trash. We used to just burn it. But now everyone brings it here instead”

Kadek Nanda, pictured left

Another collector, Kadek Nanda, has brought a few extra hands. It’s his third event and he exchanges three kilos of plastic for three kilos of rice. He’s noticing a real difference already. “Before, there was so much trash. We used to just burn it. But now everyone brings it here instead.”

The older generation is getting in on it too. Made mentions an elderly lady he often encounters. “She can hardly walk, but she always hands in the most plastic – 30 kilos every month.” He asked her how that was possible. “I can’t work in the fields anymore. I’m too old for that, but this is good for me. I can bring rice home and feel like I have a purpose now. I used to sit in the house, waiting for my day to come,” she told him. 

The biggest change is in people’s behaviour. If plastic wasn’t already on their radar, it is now.  The collectors are sent photos via Whatsapp of the different kinds of plastics so they can separate them in advance – which is necessary for recycling. The new awareness is something Made is proud to see. “Instead of throwing plastic away in the environment, they’re picking it up. It’s a first big, small step.” Growing up here as a child, the norm was to wrap food in organic material such as banana leaves. And because it was organic, you’d just throw it away afterwards. That doesn’t work with plastic, Made explains. “It’s cheap, it’s light, it’s strong. It’s hygienic. It’s become this miracle, but we don’t have any habit of how to take care of the plastic.” 

“If you want to clean the world, start with your house because you’ll see the result in two hours. Then keep going. What about a clean driveway? A clean environment?”

Made Janur Yasa

In this way, collecting plastic is an effective way to educate people about its effects on the environment in a very practical way. Made calls this “edu-action”, making a distinction between passive knowledge and hands-on knowhow. “There’s been a lot of telling, there’s been a lot of teaching, and people understand the problem, but they don’t get involved,” he says. And involvement is crucial for habits to change. “If you want to clean the world, start with your house, because you will see the result in two hours. Then you can keep going. What about a clean driveway? What about a clean environment? You get the reward – a world that’s nice to live in – every day.”

There is another extra benefit that the Plastic Exchange founder had not foreseen: the shared activity is building a stronger sense of community, bringing people together for a common goal. Separating plastic and collecting it for recycling has become a habit that people want to hold on to. And with visible progress being made, it would be a shame to stop when tourism picks up again. So Made plans to keep going: organising more plastic collection days, and evolving as local needs evolve. In some villages, the plastic is exchanged for vegetables, eggs, children’s books or clothing, he explains. But the core principle, with its focus on education and positive action will remain the same. This is what works and what people are responding to. 

Participants express a tangible pride at what they have accomplished so far. “It’s really mind-changing to see there’s no plastic trash anymore on the street. It’s so clean now,” says collector Polos Artana. Another regular collector wants the programme to spread to every village in Bali.

And visitors? They may return to find an island even more beautiful than they remembered it.

Plastic Exchange

Let yourself be inspired by Made Yanur’s proactive initiative.

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Thoughts from our community

— 18.02.2022

What an interesting article. I was somewhat expecting the plastic to be blamed on tourism and the carelessness of non-residents — but it also highlighted a problem of the “modern world” — replacing leaf wrappers with “more sanitary” clingfilm, not realizing it didn’t decompose like the leaf wrappers. Good going, Bali. I hope to visit your beautiful country sometime.

Lori W.
— 17.02.2022

Beautiful to have read this. Every individual can also do this in their own backyard. Since the pandemic I’ve recycled plastics, bottles and have left them outside my front yard for any needy person to collect in exchange for money. It might not be much, but enough to have a good meal for the day.

Stella Maria M.
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