Bali and Gili Islands: Paradise Tainted by Trash

Bali and Gili Islands: Paradise Tainted by Trash

By Caroline Scutt

Our last morning on Gili Meno I woke up at dawn and decided to take a walk along the beach to watch the sun paint the sky and neighboring Lombok with a palette of shimmering pastels. 

The wedding of a close friend brought my husband and me to this little corner of Indonesia. We were looking forward to our stay on Gili Meno as a relaxing post-Bali-wedding-frenzy retreat. And we weren’t disappointed. The tiny islet is the smallest of three that float just off the coast of Lombok. 

Meno is billed as a true island getaway. It is only two kilometers long and one wide with a population of around 400; there are no motorized vehicles, only horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. The inconvenience of dragging our two bags through sand-covered paths before we finally arrived at our cottage a half-hour later was a welcome trade off from the choking traffic we’d encountered along our route from the airport in Denpasar to Ubud and then south to the very tip of Bali.
We embraced our little far-flung island in the sun. We explored our surroundings on fat-tire bicycles, snorkeled among schools of colorful fish, strolled along the white coral-sand shores and enjoyed romantic beachside dinners as we watched the sun slip behind Bali. Our visit was indeed magical and met most of our expectations. 

There were however, a few surprises: the ubiquitous access to Wi-Fi that kept us tethered to our lives in the states and the garbage that quietly reprimanded us for our careless overconsumption. Trash was ever-present from the moment we arrived in Denpasar. While it didn’t quite permeate, it lingered in the corners of every view.

On that last day of our short stay on Meno, the roosters crowed their morning song behind me while other island birds joined in the chorus. Unlike in Ubud, there is no brass section of car and scooter horns. Mixed in with the aroma of salty air is the acrid scent of burning plastic that was ever present in Ubud and elsewhere on Bali. 

The sun having made its appearance for the day, my attention was drawn to the wave-sculpted mounds of broken and crushed coral, the occasional treasure of an unbroken shell and once again the garbage that snaked along the beach and up onto the path. The day before I’d reclaimed several plastic bags out of the surf while snorkeling. On one of our bike rides to the island’s interior lake I found myself collecting plastic bottles and bits of rubbish along the viewing dock. The lake appeared abandoned by most living creatures save a few birds. Now I gathered more plastic bottles and cans until they were spilling out of my arms. 

Bali and the Gili can be described in so many wonderful ways – enchanted, colorful, friendly, spiritual, exotic, and the list goes on. But there is so much garbage. Everywhere. We couldn’t be the only visitors who saw it. Or maybe most didn’t notice as they came and went from their luxury villas and resort encampments.

We asked our host in Ubud about the apparent excess of trash and he explained that garbage collection is very expensive and many residents can’t afford it so they burn their trash – plastic and all. 

A friend who lives in Southeast Asia commented that this was a problem throughout the region, implying that it was indigenous and had little to do with the millions of tourists, many of whom carry on like unsupervised children picnicking on a playground. 

The plastic drinking bottles, beer bottles, soda cans, cigarette butts and food wrappers that we saw crowded in corners along Bali’s Ayung River during an otherwise scenic jungle rafting excursion didn’t all come from careless locals. More than 4 million visitors trampled through Bali in 2015, according to Indonesia Investments.

A few days after our return home I googled “garbage in Bali and Gili Islands” and there were dozens of recent articles, blog posts and other reviews screaming that the garbage situation was out of control. The screaming wasn’t a plea to help this overrun tourist haven. The screaming was from visitors having been duped. Complaining that when they arrived for a pleasure-filled vacation in paradise it was no longer pristine, unspoiled. The screaming was angry and warning others to stay away. 

Read in between the lines: go find another beautiful part of the world to desecrate, we’re just about done here. Thankfully there were a few softer pleas and mentions of efforts being made like the one we saw posted while on Gili Meno inviting visitors to weekly island clean ups. 

I don’t know how effective these efforts are but I’m sure more could be done before the Island of the Gods and neighboring desert-island getaways become just more examples of places we tell our children “were beautiful once but…” 

Only what excuses will we give? The resources exist for us to reverse the situation now. If we can bring Wi-Fi to a small islet in a remote part of the world, we can certainly bring solutions to address this garbage crisis and perhaps avoid doing the same to the next destined-to-be-overrun paradise. Looking at the photographs I took of that sunrise brings me back to a place of peace and beauty. But I am still troubled by what became of the armful of garbage I collected and dropped into an already overfull bin, and of the other waste I too left behind.

Caroline Scutt began writing professionally in 1992, as a reporter for “Travel Weekly” newspaper. Ms. Scuttʼs career has taken her from sharing her adventures as a travel writer to communicating the intricate mysteries of medicine and patient care. She is an accomplished author with articles on a variety of topics appearing in lifestyle magazines, travel guidebooks and academic publications. She is co-author of Frenchtown, New Jersey – History Along the River, History Press 2015.

Ms. Scutt currently holds the position of Community Impact Director for United Way of Hunterdon County. When she isn’t writing or helping build a stronger community through her work at United Way she can be found sharing her love for stories at her shop, The Book Garden, in Frenchtown, N.J. She lives in Frenchtown with her husband, Jeff, her daughter, Julia, and a house full of furry family members.