Have you ever wondered what happens to your waste after the blue bin? 

Traditional waste management practices have been driven by the necessity to keep waste out of sight and, consequently, “out of mind”. This has resulted in systems that enclose waste and obscure its hazards. We who benefit from these systems are far removed from the communities th­­­at must collect, manage, and bury or repurpose the by-products of our consumption.  

Systems for recovering value from waste (recycling, incineration, etc.) have been in place for a long time, but they are not able to cope with our rapidly growing production capacity. This has resulted in us offloading our waste to poorer countries, where it places excessive pressure on ecological systems – evidenced clearly by biodiversity loss, climate change, and the proliferation of ocean plastics.

My native country of Indonesia has always struggled with managing its own waste. Out of over 17,000 islands in the archipelago, only one – Java island – has recycling facilities. When China banned the import of mixed recyclables in 2017, Southeast Asian countries like mine stepped up to fill in the role, and we now face the added challenge of dealing with imports from the developed world. It did not take long for us to see the impact of this on our land and our water.

I witnessed this dramatic impact of plastic waste when I visited Nusa Penida, a small island in Bali during a school break in 2017 to learn how to freedive. . The island – like most islands in Indonesia – is part of The Coral Triangle, and is home to the most biodiverse sea life on the planet.

The island is best known for Manta Point, a dive spot famous for being the busiest manta cleaning station in the world. Hundreds of manta rays visit this place daily, harmoniously taking turns circling above one coral head to the next while the local fish eat the parasites off their bodies.

Nusa Penida’s people and environment have had to adapt quickly to the sudden influx of tourists coming to the island in the past few years thanks to Instagram. This small island, which in some areas only received electricity in 2016, is now a worldwide attraction. Nusa Penida has long been a secret gem, but has recently gained popularity as a tourist attraction thanks to the distribution of photos and travel blogs on the internet. In contrast to locals, most tourists are familiar with a modern way of living and comfort, which results in a huge amount of disposable plastic waste.

Nusa Penida has an area of 202 km², twice as large as the city of Vancouver (114  km²), but it’s population of 45,580 people is more comparable to Kitsilano (population of 43,045) or UBC (population of 54,863). Yet despite its low population density, the island is dealing with a waste crisis.

Several factors have contributed to the tidal wave of plastic waste piling up on Nusa Penida’s shores. Geographic location, a lagging infrastructure that has not kept pace with demand, and lack of education all play a role.

Bali vs tourist resident’s trash production per capita in 2018

The island has long benefited from the global thermocline, which directs currents of water from the Pacific Ocean through the Indonesian Sea, bringing with them the nutrients that give birth and nurture the vibrant marine life of Nusa Penida. With the growing increase in plastic waste, however, this current also brings ocean plastic to the shores of the island. 

Under a profit driven centralised economy, most resources and goods must be shipped in through complex supply chains, but reverse logistics to recover waste caused by these goods can’t be justified. The result is a constipated system, where goods flow into the island and its waste accumulates in resident’s backyards.

Waste literacy is another factor that has contributed to this problem. Before the introduction of plastic, Indonesians were accustomed to wrapping things in banana leaves and building houses with bamboo walls and coconut leaves for roofs. They used local materials that fed back into the natural cycle quickly and did not require complex logistics to transport. Like many cultures across the globe, burying and burning waste was a common practice deeply ingrained in many communities. With the introduction of plastic, this practice has become harmful. Burning plastic causes exposure to carcinogenic chemicals, and buried plastic does not decompose and will eventually end in the ocean when the powerful tropical monsoons wash the surface of the land during the rainy season. 

I met many locals when I visited the island and got a chance to talk to a few of them. None of them were aware that neither this island, nor its neighboring island of Bali, do not have waste management systems. The only Indonesian island with recycling facilities is Java, which can be reached via two boat trips. So far, this is the only way out; the logistics for this journey are prohibitively expensive to handle all the waste, and thus another solution is required.

There is nothing like experiencing the clear blue water,  graceful mantas, and most vibrant corals first hand – juxtaposed with clouds of plastic waste, boat propellers, tourists kicking healthy corals, and poisoning the water with the leached chemicals of their sunscreen – knowing deep down that I am also a tourist to the island and am directly contributing to this crisis. 

This first visit had a deep impact on me, and prompted me to start exploring what I could do to help. Nusa Penida is one example of the thousands of disadvantaged communities living in heavily polluted, marginalized islands in Indonesia, and there are many more communities like it around the world.

Architectural issues

My initial approach to solving this issue was likely the same approach most architects would start with, by trying to figure out a way to sequester this waste into construction material. Plastic is a dream material; it can be flexible or rigid, hard or soft, transparent or opaque. It is cheap, waterproof, and durable. Plastic can be melted into any desired shape, which opens the door to novel applications as architectural elements. Nusa Penida is developing rapidly and currently needs to import building materials to accommodate the sudden rise in tourism. If a local solution can be found to convert plastic waste into building materials, we have the potential to replace the community’s need for virgin materials with a more accessible alternative that is currently considered waste. 

Recycling might be the most direct response, but it does not address the source of the issue of waste creation in the first place. Islands such Nusa Penida are dealing with a number of urgent issues: growing without the ability to sprawl, limited economic diversity, a reliance on tourism, vulnerability through resource pressure and climate change, and rapid environmental degradation. These are issues that cannot be solved simply by designing a house or architectural members out of plastic; they require waste management solutions and systems level redesign. Waste is a complex socio-ecological problem, and can’t be solved by creating a one size fits all product, within the traditional scope of an architecture studio project, by one architecture student. 

I discover MELT Collective Shortly after my return to Vancouver. The not-for-profit MELT Collective is a Circular Economy Innovation Lab based at the University of British Columbia. The lab is somewhat similar to an artisanal bakery, with accessible small-scale machines and familiar tools that allow the community to transform their own waste into something useful and beautiful, all while building plastic literacy through hands-on interaction with the material. 

I feel privileged to be part of the architecture school and have access to resources like the woodshops and a material library that reduce friction when developing my ideas. The limited access to these resources makes it hard for interdisciplinary collaboration to take place using the architecture school facility, and limits us to traditional modeling material like wood and concrete. Becoming part of MELT made me aware of the importance of democratized access to knowledge and tools. By breaking down academic and cultural silos, we can begin to collaborate effectively across disciplines. Instead of creating a product, I shifted my focus to work on creating a platform and toolset to co-develop and implement innovative social and material solutions for daily life alongside communities to eliminate waste.

The simple, replicable technology and decentralized nature of operation makes MELT’s approach  highly transferable and effective for small islands such as Nusa Penida. Nusa Penida has the potential to become a “Living Lab” where we will use its whole island waste system as a resource to develop novel solutions and best practice examples for plastic issues on small islands. Further adaptation to the local context is needed before transferring what we have created at UBC to Indonesia. Sociocultural context has to be taken into accountvie in order to create adjustments that are accepted by the local communities and thus are long lasting. With this in mind, we formed a transdisciplinary and transcultural team to create INDOxMELT,  an offshoot of MELT with a focus on developing community-based circular economy labs for small islands in Indonesia.