More than half of Bali’s economic income comes from tourism, where hundreds of thousands of Balinese work in the industry.
Many returned to their native village. And with more people returning to the villages, more garbage piled up. With so many people out of work, they were also starving.
“I told myself, I have to do something about this,” said Made Janur Yasa, a vegan restaurant owner in Ubud city.
Yasa said he wanted to find a way to help people in his community during the pandemic while addressing the ongoing problem of plastic pollution.
“I had to think, within the challenge is an opportunity,” he said.
So he started a program where local villagers could exchange plastic for rice – a barter system that would benefit the environment and empower the local population. Residents can hand in plastic waste that they have collected in exchange for a staple food.
“I thought to myself, if it works in my village, it will work in other places,” Yasa said. “I realized this thing was getting bigger than I ever imagined.”
The program brings together local neighborhood groups called Banjars who collect plastic from their homes, streets, rivers, beaches and surrounding areas.
Villages hold community exchange events once a month where residents can trade plastic for rice. Yasa says the organization has so far helped feed thousands of families and collected nearly 500 tons of plastic for recycling.
“Teenagers come with a smile. Older people are there. Young children come with their mothers. That’s what keeps me going, to see them all excited about it,” Yasa said. “They felt powerless and that gives hope.”
CNN: In what ways has the pandemic affected people’s livelihoods in Bali?
Created by Janur Yasa: When the pandemic hit, the economy in Bali came to a standstill. Many businesses are closed — restaurants, hotels, tour companies. We are so dependent on tourism. So I see people losing their jobs. There were massive layoffs.
When all these businesses shut down and many of these workers had nothing to do, many of them went back to their villages. They went back to the country. But people had no income. So the first thing people need is food. I saw that people in my village were beginning to worry about how they would put food on the table. People were really having a really hard time, especially six months after the pandemic. And this worries me.
CNN: What are some special aspects of Balinese culture that guide your efforts?
yasa: People come from all over the world to live here because they are drawn to the holistic way we live here in Bali. I was born and raised here in a small village. The good thing about Bali is that the connection from person to person is very strong. If I have more money than I need, I can help my neighbors.
We have a lot of traditional wisdom that guides our lives here. One is called tri hita karana, which are the three ways to attain happiness: dignity; connection from person to person, which is regarded as prosperity; and human connection to the environment.
CNN: How does your program work?
yasa: The villagers get the rice according to the type of plastic they bring and the amount they bring. Each category has a different value. We work with a company that collects this plastic and sends it to Java for proper recycling, because we don’t have a recycling factory in Bali yet. We buy rice from the farmers. So we really create this circular economy, support the farmers and then we also clean the environment and feed the people in that community.
People enjoy it. And now, after a year (of) this, picking up plastic is sexy. It’s cool to do. People just fall for it. Now we work with 200 villages. My goal is really to spread this movement.
CNN: How have some of these cultural wisdoms helped make Plastic Exchange successful?
yasa: The people of Bali live in nature. Traditionally we believe that nature has a soul. People do care about the environment. But the plastic pollution in Bali is due to a lack of education and practice.
We try to change behavior. The only way you can do that is through education. That’s how you change people’s habits. My method shows them an example through action. We teach people how to separate the plastic. And we also inform people about the dangers of the plastic. If it gets into the environment, it pollutes the water, the ocean and that’s not good for the environment.
People gather here in a really, really good way. So once people are educated on how to properly dispose of the plastic, they want to help and bring about change.