Blog Balis US40mil trash problem

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Over a six-week period this spring, the Indonesian nongovernmental organisation Sungai Watch collected more than 40 tonnes of trash from Bali’s Jimbaran Bay – traditionally a bucket list paradise known for its grilled seafood restaurants, surf break and idyllic Four Seasons Resort.

Few destinations are quite as reliant on tourism as Bali, which counts on the industry to deliver more than half its gross domestic product.

Those visitors – who come for beach bliss, Hindu temples and luxe resorts on the edges of spectacular jungles and rice fields – may be surprised to find how much their experience can be marred by the island’s infrastructural failures.

Between some 1,000 illegal open dump sites polluting the island’s waters and litter piling up on the shores and roadsides, trash is the single biggest threat to the tourism economy.

So far, local leaders say, the amount of tourism business Bali is losing to its trash problem is impossible to quantify, which may be convenient, since the government has had a difficult time curbing the issue.

On the island, bans on single-use plastics have largely failed, suffering in part from a lack of accountability.

Although Indonesia has vowed to reduce its ocean-bound plastic waste by 70% by 2025, there’s a lack of physical evidence of any progress it’s so far made.

The US$40mil cleanup plan

Sungai Watch is one of the most promising organisations taking on Bali’s waste issue; its teams pull some 6,600 pounds of plastic from Bali’s rivers, illegal landfills and barriers daily.

The group combats river waste and an estimated 90% of ocean plastics come from these waterways through a village model that provides locals in seven communities with sorting stations, plastic recovery facilities, river barriers and the requisite support staff.

Five more sites are currently in the works.

Scaling to this point has been an uphill climb, made possible through sponsors and partners such as World Surf League, Corona, Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc and Marriott Indonesia.

Bencheghib predicts it will take about 100 village sites to close up all the illegal trash dumps in Bali.

That will require an investment of more than US$40mil (RM180.5mil) over the next three years – at a budget of US$150,000 (RM677,150) per year per site. But with that funding, Sungai Watch could move quickly.

Ronald Akili, the Indonesian entrepreneur behind Seminyak’s Desa Potato Head – an eco-village beloved by creative types, with two design-forward hotels, a beach club and restaurants – is tackling the problem from a different angle.

His Collective Waste Centre, set to open in November, aims to reduce waste specifically generated by hotels and hospitality businesses. It cost US$200,000 (RM902,880) to build the site, which will be staffed by locals.

When up and running, it will handle organic, non-organic and garden waste from the eight resorts, beach clubs, and restaurants that have signed up so far, sorting that material to be composted, recycled and otherwise diverted from landfills. Akili says the facilities, if scaled, could reduce resorts’ landfill-bound waste to just 5% from the current 50%.

Rethinking tourism

Nearby countries offer potential models for Bali. Take the Philippines’ popular holiday island Boracay, which closed in 2018 for six months to repair environmental damage and clean up pollution that came in large part from overtourism and fast-paced development.

On Bali, six months could mean as much as a US$3.5bil (RM15.8bil) loss based on 2019’s tourism income, since even the once-slow rainy season is now about as busy as high season.

As for restarting with a clean slate, tourism head Adnyana says the “Bali area is too big” to stage a shutdown. “Many people will complain,” he says.

To Bencheghib, shutting down wouldn’t help. He says the focus needs to be on making sure every village knows how to responsibly handle its waste.

One approach may be to take a page from Amsterdam, Hawaii or Venice – all destinations that are shifting tourism management strategies to a lower-density model that caters not to backpackers but to higher-paying (and theoretically more conscious) travellers.

Bambu Indah hotel owner and environmentalist John Hardy – who moved to the island in the mid-1970s – would love to see Bali’s offerings look more like Bhutan’s, a kingdom whose high-value, low-volume model he calls “a very fabulous solution”.

“They don’t let random tourists in,” he says, referring to the country’s US$200 (RM903) nightly levies for international visitors.

“To go to Bhutan you have to be full of intention.”

The government agrees, but only to a point: In July, Bali Governor Wayan Koster announced that a US$10 (RM45) tourist tax would be charged to all visitors upon entry starting in 2024, with the earnings earmarked for environmental and cultural conservation. Local officials have also been petitioning to increase the visa-on-arrival price (currently US$35 (RM158)) by up to three times in coming months.

One man’s trash

As Akili and Bencheghib work on funding their more ambitious clean-up efforts, both entrepreneurs – and others – are finding ways to repurpose the island’s garbage.

Bencheghib, for instance, lives in a tiny home made entirely of plastic bags, a prototype for Sungai Watch’s new social enterprise that’s making furniture from the material.

Akili, meanwhile, has reduced Potato Head’s waste so that only 3% of the village’s generated trash is going to landfills; he aims for the whole enterprise to be zero-waste by 2028, if not sooner.

A big driver of his success so far has been the construction of an R&D-focused Waste Lab, open to guests, where plastic bottle tops, Styrofoam, oyster shells and other trash become terrazzo-like chairs, stools and kitchen utensils – all designed by such boldface names as Max Lamb, Andreu Carulla and Kengo Kuma.

“The challenge is every day there is a new material that needs to be reimagined,” says Akili, whose team is also working to transform cigarette butts into something people will want to pay for.

“There’s this amazing energy of creation and creativity and, really, the idea that anything is possible here on the island,” says Bencheghib, who’s driven to save it.

“Bali is like the protagonist,” he adds, “and we have to fight to clean it up.” — Bloomberg