Skip to main content

The sight of trash washed up on Kuta Beach has become an annual phenomenon as piles of debris are carried to the beach by strong currents during the winter months.Agung Parameswara/Getty Images

Dispatch is a new series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.

In early February, a tweet from the Wall Street Journal asked, "Which countries create the most ocean trash?" Without even looking at the story, I was certain I knew the identity of one of the main perpetrators. I had just spent a good chunk of my honeymoon there.

My wife and I decided to make Bali the centrepiece of our journey through a slice of Southeast Asia. Of the three weeks we'd be away, we booked a week on the Indonesian island famous for its white-sand beaches, world-class surfing and famous Balinese hospitality.

If we could do it again, we would skip the island entirely.

In contrast to Bali's image as a sun-drenched tropical paradise, the ugly truth is that the island is awash in garbage.

Our first sign that something was amiss was a visit to Kuta Beach, ground zero for most tourists. Instead of scene from a postcard, we found ourselves standing on what appeared to be a sandy landfill. So littered was the beach with plastic bottles, bags and broken fishing nets that in some spots it was impossible to walk without stepping on garbage.

And if walking on the beach was depressing, surfing was downright dismal. Plastic bags wrapped around my legs as I carried my board into the surf, and my hands churned through bottles, straws and wrappers as I paddled out. Dead fish in various states of decomposition greeted me whenever I came up for air, and a near miss with the corpse of an unidentified mammal convinced me that it was time to pursue other activities. I exited the water, defeated and disgusted.

Ask who is responsible for the problem and most locals will tell you the blame falls squarely on Java, Bali's much larger and densely populated neighbour. Javanese are portrayed as profligate litterbugs whose trash is carried eastward by the wind and waves during the rainy season onto Bali's shores. The Balinese call it "garbage season."

The problem is, this story is only partly true. Spend a few days on Bali and it becomes painfully clear that the Balinese have no one to blame but themselves. Illegal dumping is the norm. I saw motorcyclists pitch full trash bags off bridges, and an entire family throw every piece of plastic they brought to the beach into the water. Garbage pickup is irregular and inefficient, making it difficult for even green-minded citizens to make sure their trash ends up in the right place. A Bali-based NGO estimates that 5,000 tons of trash is dumped daily on the island, most of which is washed into waterways by the daily rains and carried into the sea. The waves promptly deliver the material onto the beach, and the miserable cycle begins anew.

On top of this, the island seems to have few restrictions on development. Kuta is huge warren of resorts, malls and massive nightclubs, many of which are built illegally, with the owners obtaining permits after the fact. As increasing numbers of (mostly Australian) tourists arrive, development races ahead of infrastructure, overwhelming utilities such as sewage treatment and electricity. Power outages are frequent, and beachgoers occasionally complain of skin rashes after a swim.

If the government is concerned about pollution harming the island's economy (75 per cent of its revenue comes from two of its main tourist districts, according to a World Wildlife Fund report), it doesn't show. When asked about garbage season by a concerned citizen last year, Bali's Governor Made Mangku Pastika shrugged it off. "This problem is not anyone's fault, but is due to a natural phenomenon that routinely occurs," he was reported as saying in local newspapers.

However, events may force his hand. People took notice in 2012 when world champion surfer Kelly Slater tweeted his disgust over the conditions at Uluwatu, a legendary surf break. "If Bali doesn't #DoSomething serious about this pollution it'll be impossible to surf here in a few years. Worst I've ever seen," he wrote. Around the same time, surfers in the area began to report health problems after spending time in the water. It was eventually revealed that cases of skin, eye and ear infections were the result of raw sewage from new resorts that overlook the water, Oliver Crowell, co-founder of Project Clean Uluwatu, told the Jakarta Post.

Pressed on the issue by a youth group, Governor Pastika signed a memorandum in November, 2014, to cut down on the use of plastic bags on the island. Other grassroots organizations are focusing on recycling and awareness campaigns in order to stem the flow of material into Bali's waters.

The constant stream of jets landing at Bali's international airport suggests that the island's environmental woes are not affecting the all-important tourism industry just yet. But as the Wall Street Journal story revealed, Indonesia comes second only to China when it comes to fouling our oceans.

Potential visitors may want to ask themselves if they really want to contribute to this mess. Personally, I would advise skipping Bali until it gets its act together.

Send in your first-person story from the road to

Interact with The Globe