Fishing for Rubbish

Villagers in Indonesia’s Banda Islands are trying to cut the plastic waste littering their beaches and spilling into their coral reefs.

Magga Fira spends his mornings picking up trash from the ocean. “We go rubbish fishing,” he shouts, standing barefoot in his canoe. Armed with a telescoping fishing net, Fira fills up garbage bags to prevent vibrant multicolored coral reefs from being swamped in plastic debris.

Photo by
Indonesia is struggling daily with a massive amount of plastic debris entering its coastal environment. Photo by ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies/ Joleah Lamb.

The holiday season in the Banda Islands in Indonesia is a busy time for Fira’s cleaning team of local people and young volunteers, mostly from Germany. Tons of rubbish are left on the creamy white sand beaches of the secluded volcanic archipelago covered with lush green vegetation nestled in the heart of the Coral Triangle.

A father of three and former school teacher, Fira dedicates all his time to cleaning up the ocean and educating his community about how they can reduce and recycle plastic waste. He leads a waste management project set up by the organization Yayasan Cahaya Samudera Indonesia aimed at educating children and young adults on the conservation of coral reefs.

In partnership with BandaSEA e.V based in Bonn, Germany, and funded by the Government of Indonesia, Dive Bluemotion, and private donations, this organization is concerned with the lack of waste infrastructure on the islands and the threat of plastic waste on the biodiversity of the coastal and marine environment, the food security of the inhabitants, and the tourism industry.

In coral reefs, plastic waste decreases habitat availability for reef organisms by giving bacteria a foothold to invade and spread disease. A recent study showed that disease likelihood increases 20-fold once a coral is wrapped in plastic. This rubbish also causes light-deprivation, toxin release, and anoxic conditions, which all have major impacts on local fisheries. “With 275 million people relying on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism income, and cultural importance, moderating disease outbreak risks in the ocean will be vital for improving both human and ecosystem health,” says the study’s lead author Joleah Lamb, a marine biologist from the University of California, Irvine.

Indonesia is struggling daily with a massive amount of plastic debris entering its coastal environment. The Jakarta Environmental Department, aware of the urgency of the situation, has tried to resolve mismanaged informal landfills scattered around the islands.

The department installed five colored bins at strategic places in the villages with the expectation that people would separate their trash. Valuable waste such as Polyethylene terephthalate could then be sent to Surabaya to be molded into new plastic items.

Photo of fisherman Banda Islands Father of three and former school teacher Magga Fira dedicates his time to cleaning the ocean of plastic waste.Photo by Catherine Lamoureux.

But the colored bins weren’t effective. “People did not use them,” says Tuta Weissenfeld of BandaSEA and manager of Dive Bluemotion, “so we came up with the idea of using rubbish bins made out of bamboo for every household. But they just turned them upside down and used them as chicken houses.”

Where rubbish bins have failed, Fira’s team has turned to education. They started visiting every home to teach women how to separate their trash into two different rice bags — organic and inorganic — to reduce the amount of waste scattered on the islands and ultimately make a profit out of it. “I tell every woman on the islands that rubbish can provide an income,” says Fira. “Now almost 40 women from five islands can make new products like handbags and wallets with non-recyclable trash.” Fira also gave every woman in the market reusable bags to carry their products.

But progress can be slow. Many women gave those reusable bags to their husbands, local fishers, to hold their catch of the day, while they continued to use single-use plastics.

“Children learn easily and elderlies don’t consume much, [but] middle-aged [people are] tough to educate and [do] not seem to see the problem,” says Mareike Huhn, founding member and project coordinator at BandaSEA. “Unless there is a financial incentive, they only focus on their domestic chores.”

Teachers can also contribute to the problem by selling sweets and juices in plastic packaging to children at school. “Teachers make a very low income, less than 20 dollars per month,” says Fira. “By selling these goods, they can make a little bit more money.”

In addition to fishing rubbish at sea and picking up trash from the beach, Fira has also tried to put wire-grills in runoff water ditches to block the garbage from entering the sea, but residents broke them. “They don’t want to see piles of garbage in front of their home,” he says. “Now ditches are cleaned before each storm to make sure no rubbish finds its way to the sea.”

Challenges abound for the team of 31 who work under Fira’s supervision. Teachers, local cleaners, and international volunteers spend their days fishing rubbish, educating children, helping women sort out valuable waste material, and cleaning ditches and beaches. “Bad habits come back quickly,” says Fira. “If we don’t remind them, they simply throw the packaging on the ground again.”

But Fira’s team has seen progress. After several years of effort, many families now sort their trash into organic and inorganic rice bags. Fira’s team then helps remove and transport the bags to a new landfill facility managed by Yayasan Cahaya Samudera Indonesia. Organic waste goes to a compost facility, hard plastics are sent to Surabaya, and metals are sold to traders coming by boat. The rest of the plastic waste, if unused by the local women to be transformed into sellable goods, is burned in a pyrolysis machine and converted to diesel.

Huhn agrees that burning unusable plastic waste and causing another pollutant isn’t the ideal alternative. In the Banda Islands, incineration is a last resort, one she hopes to see is no longer needed as recycling plastic leads to reduced plastic use. “It is an intermediate step before the more environmentally-aware younger generation reduces plastic use,” she says, stressing that her ultimate goal for a plastic-free ocean rests on education.

In the meantime, Fira and his team continue to fish for rubbish, pulling bags, containers, and other single-use plastics from the crystalline waters of the Bandas one bit at a time.

“The problem will stop if we teach the children to act differently from what they learned from their parents,” says Fira. “This is what I can do for my island.”

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