‘The main problem with waste is people’s mindset and behaviour’

The lack of sustainable waste management is one of the most critical environmental challenges facing Indonesia and the rest of the world’s developing countries. Bali in particular must tackle the growing consumption and limited space for waste disposal.
Carla Albertí de la Rosa spoke with the winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize 2009, Yuyun Ismawati. Mother of two, Yuyun is an environmental engineer from West Java who moved to Bali in 1996 and established Bali Fokus, an environmental group that implements sustainable community-based waste and sanitation management programs that empower low-income people to improve the environment.

Q The Balinese traditionally wrapped and served food in palm leaves or other biodegradable plant material. But the unfettered expansion of mass tourism on the island has created mountains of trash as waste is dumped. How does Bali Fokus educate the community to manage waste?

A Waste is a very broad subject. We start with small things. We approach the community about what they’re involved with. They don’t like it when people approach them directly. We try to find common issues first to target issues as a collective. Starting from there, they will then have the kind of awareness to solve problems individually, after they’ve solved the ones at community level. We always start with village mapping, what kind of problems there are according to the interpretation they have. We ask them to sit together and map out the situation, any problems related to the environment or sanitation. We follow their dynamics and understanding and after several meetings they will see by themselves. It can’t be addressed quickly. It probably takes one year or two for them to get the understanding. It’s time consuming but it’s worth if it’s coming from themselves. An instant solution would not last long if it’s introduced by people from the outside.

Bali Fokus was founded in 2000. What have been its most important achievements in the last decade?

After 2003 we brought our community-based programme to the national agency for it to be adopted by the government. We told them to adopt it for one year and then they decided to support it after that period. This programme is community-based; it’s people-centred and different to the government approach, which will be project-based and top down. They never had this kind of programme before, making people do things by themselves. In 2005 it became a national programme and now after five years it has become bigger and bigger. In terms of program implementation since 2003, we work to expand it outside of Bali.
Small is beautiful, but our community-based programme should be citywide. It should be supported by the government and should be mainstream in government policy and programmes. From our first project, sanitation, we learned we cannot do this by ourselves but we have to work with the government whether we like it or not, because they’re the owners of the country, the owners of the cities. It’s their responsibility to serve us as citizens, but they have other priorities, so we have to make sure that our priority also chips in into theirs.

Q The Kyoto Protocol’s scheme known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has projects focused on creating Certified Emission Reductions, normally known as carbon credits. These credits have a monetary value and get traded in the fast-growing carbon market. Are carbon credits really an effective way of fighting climate change?

A In general it’s our responsibility to do a better job for future generations. But carbon credits don’t solve the root of the problem because the problem should be solved in the country of origin and not transferred to other countries in terms of supporting development or giving the money to support improvement in developing countries. The mechanics of carbon trading are complicated. In the past, CDM projects only supported big industries because they can reduce a huge amount of CO², but that’s only benefiting the big factories, the big industries. It’s not really supporting sustainable development in that region.
Another criticism of CDM is that one big single, short project is not really improving or reducing carbon emissions in general because it’s partial here and partial there and it’s not benefiting the poor. A proper carbon financing scheme should be supporting these people so they can improve their practices. That is helpful at the micro level because it’s not only benefiting one single industry but it’s spread and it’s benefiting the people. In the end it also contributes to reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

What percent of CO² emissions can be reduced through improved waste management?

A For one neighbourhood with a population of 1,000 families, if we do proper separation and composting we can reduce 300 tons of CO² per year.

The concept of recycling waste seems to be developing swiftly in many Western countries, especially in Europe. Do you think there’s any real possibility of a modern “recycling culture” being developed in Indonesia, with people disposing of recyclable waste separately, or will it always be left to the processors, the scavengers and the litter pickers?

It’s already happening but it’s still informal. We have had a solid waste law since 2008 that states it’s mandatory to separate garbage into organic and inorganic. In every housing compound they have to have one facility that can process this, so that there’s a reduction of waste of 10 to 15 percent from the neighbourhood. It will take another 10 or 15 years but it’s starting.

Q Bali is one of the more developed, wealthy parts of Indonesia, and although there are obviously problems, there is at least some understanding that the environment is one of the key assets in the tourism industry. But Bali is only one very small part of a huge nation, and in most of Indonesia there is virtually no awareness of the issues surrounding waste management. Do you ever feel like your task is an impossible one, and do you think there is a possibility of improving waste management nationwide?

A I think in the last couple of years the awareness of the need for better waste management is growing but people need to go through different stages. People get frustrated because they do the garbage separation and then the truck mixes them. But the law will be more aggressive in the next five years. I will allow myself 10 years to see a real change.

Q How much of a role in improving waste issues in Bali do foreign visitors have?

A Some tourists express their concern and make comments. They can push and become the extension of voice to the government to make them provide a proper system. But the government sometimes doesn’t listen too much.

Q So can tourists in Bali really do anything proactive to help?

A When they go shopping they should bring their own bags and not ask for plastic bags. They can also still use their habits from home and by doing that they can educate people here. They can push and alert the government.

Q What percentage of waste do you think is potentially recyclable?

A Sixty to 70 percent of our waste is organic. The organic components that can be composted are 40-50 percent of this. Thirty percent of our waste is inorganic and only 20 percent is recyclable.

Q Most people wouldn’t want to do anything with waste. What made you interested in its management?

A I saw that no one was paying attention consistently. My background is environmental engineering, so I know the technological solution to solve waste management. But what shocks me is that the main problem with waste is people’s mindset and behaviour. That’s the difficult part.

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