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Plastic disposal techniques of the average Indonesian coastal dweller

08:39 28th July 2008 by Oceangybe
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Words by: Ryan

Sumba, Indonesia
28 July 2008

Since leaving the island of Rote two weeks ago, we have not seen another cruising yacht, or any boat other than rustic Indonesian fishing boats,. Khulula is running on empty. It has not rained in a month, and fresh potable water is all but non existent on these arid regions of Eastern Indonesia. Our small “back-up to rain catching” water maker is running 4 hours a day simply to provide for our drinking and cooking needs. Of the once abundant colorful line of yellow diesel and red gasoline jerry cans that inhabit the rail, only one of each remain, the rest having been relegated empty and spent to the rear lockers of the boat. Other than the odd can of dodgy Indonesian “Bensin” for our outboard motor, we have not seen a filling station since Papa New Guinea, 45 days and 2000 miles ago. As for food, it is the local Indonesian village markets that sustain us – random and unfamiliar fruits and veggies that require large amounts of culinary creativity, but fill the belly in a very tasty fashion.

We have discovered that chasing surf through Indonesia takes one far away from the beaten track of cruising routes. I mean, who on earth would sail the south side of this swell-exposed nation when there is a lovely swell protected corridor to the north of them? This fact alone has lead us away from jaded locals, hectic pestering and unsolicited visitors, and towards a remote and very friendly local atmosphere. Just yesterday we followed an almost naked, wizened and wrinkled Indonesian grandpa down a hectic muddy streambed to his personal water hole, where, in exchange for some soap he showed us how to draw water (to wash and rinse clothing), then dispatch the used soapy suds away from his precious fresh water.

In these far reaches of a country like Indonesia, there is the much encountered situation of a severe lack of environmental education coupled with the existence of cheap and heavily plastic packaged products. In a prime example of cultural lag, the products that are doing the damage to our oceans arrive years and years prior to the education that is required to reduce their impact. Take right now for example: We are anchored in a massive bay that encompasses four lesser bays. In all this space, there are perhaps four fishing boats, 8 dugout canoes and perhaps 50 people. It is no wonder that these simple, beetle-nut chewing people consider the ocean as immense and completely un-changeable. Plastic packaged products (noodles, chips, cookies, rice, cigarettes, 2l bottled filled with fresh water, you name it) have definitely made their arrival in this bay, and the locals dispatch with this as they would any other waste – they throw it in the ocean.

After a year afloat, and an evolution towards reducing our plastic waste production at the time of purchase (selecting products that have less packaging), Khulula generates very little plastic waste. Two weeks ago we had the opportunity to visit a local village, a docking spot for the provisioning ferry for the island of Savu. After three weeks we had a small bag of garbage, and this was an opportunity to get rid of it. On the way in we shouted the usual greetings and waved to all the passing fishing boats, asking where would be a good spot to dump the garbage. The looks that were returned to us were that of complete confusion, and yet we were sure we had the correct Indonesian question… On land we had the benefit of increased ease of communication not hindered by shouting over 50m of water, and we could finally show the fisherman exactly what we wanted to dispose of. Again, they looked at us as if we were asking a trick question! Eventually one old guy said: “What do you mean you want to bring it to land? Just throw it in the Ocean, that’s were you just came from!!”

They all do just that, and it is very evident in the putrid, scummy, plastic filled and smelly shore wash of any Indonesian port. It is very much more than simply disturbing.

It is for lands like these that the OceanGybe mission exists, and yet, one can’t help but feel that the problem is already so huge and so out of control that trying to change it is futile. How much change can one small sailboat with three well meaning guys inspire, trying to convey their message across a language gulf to the masses of locals who don’t see anything wrong with what they are doing? How can we explain the effect that ocean borne plastics are having on marine life and aquatic birds? Most of these people are concerned only with attaining their next meal, and have not the perspective required to contemplate long term marine conservation.

However, we forge ahead. We feel that if we can change just one small community in ten, convince them to contain and bury/burn their trash rather than throw it in the ocean, then we are making progress. We know one thing for sure: If we (as the more educated and aware first world) throw our hands up in futility, then things definitely will not change. It all starts with baby steps.

In the end, the responsibility needs to lie with both the consumer and the producer. We have been shocked with the amount of packing on certain products out of the orient: Cookies in separate wrappers, wrapped together in pairs, then bags of 4, and then all delivered in a flimsy one-use plastic bucket. It is atrocious that one needs to go through 4 separate layers of plastic packaging to consume a single cookie. Compound this utter disregard to plastic production with a consumer like the average Indonesian peasant, and one has the perfect recipe for large scale introduction of plastics into the ocean.

Where does this plastic go? Some will sink, some will end up buried on the beaches, and the rest will float downwind. Indonesia is the most windward (up wind) of the southern hemisphere Indian Ocean trade winds. A large proportion of this plastic should end up on beaches in the Indian Ocean (Cocos Keeling, Xmas Island, Madagascar, Mozambique, Mauritius etc). In October this year s/v Khulula will be visiting all these islands. We are intrigued to see what we shall find.

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