Thank you to Clara Feibusch for her powerful guest blog post about her visit to a landfill site in South East Asia.
Bantar Gebang: The largest landfill in South East Asia. It receives on average around 6000 tons of waste each day. If you’ve ever visited South East Asia, you will recognise that this is really disproportionately vast amount, as the pollution issue here runs deeper than brimming landfill sites; many factors including lack of infrastructure or proper environmental education mean that every street corner, river or open space becomes a free-for-all dumping ground. Unfathomable amounts of fires are casually lit on a daily basis at these informal mini-landfill sites, producing toxic emissions which are still just as harmful for the environment, even though no longer have to physically see the problem, just a pile of ash. As with many of the customs of society in this culture, when you travel here for a while seeing people starting fires to “dispose” of the waste becomes commonplace and it is easy to ignore, becoming an acceptable part of the culture and little thought is given to challenging it. Plastic waste is a huge, huge issue here. Though I can see small changes since I was last here a year ago, it is not a prevalent or urgent current affairs topic like it has become in the western world, and there is simply too much non-biodegradable waste being produced and incorrectly disposed of or treated by these regions, among many others across the globe.
The rubbish that – by some miracle – actually finds its way to the landfill site is creating an insurmountable catastrophe too. Though I have described the specific issues I was presented with in general on my trip through South East Asia, this is not just a local issue, but a global issue. The only thing that actually sets apart Bantar Gebang from every other landfill site across the entirety of the globe is the ability to get up close and see the 3000 families that inhabit the uncovered landfill, and the lives that they lead. BGBJ is a haven that occupies a converted recycling plant inside the confines of the landfill site, set against the backdrop of 3 out of the many countless mounds of waste. Even spending a day at this unlikely sanctuary got to my stomach and made me sick. The breadth of illness that I observed amongst the children that we spent the day with was heartbreaking, as they don’t have access to the right medical care, and so often minor injuries such as nicks and cuts will become infected due to the unsanitary environment which they are forced to inhabit. A lot of the others are jaundiced, exhausted and skinny due to an array of parasitic infections, amongst other conditions, both trivial and life threatening.
A singular day spent here evoked a difficult range of emotions to experience, as although these circumstances to any outsider may seem unendurable, these children aren’t unhappy… not even in the slightest. They are some of the most loving, charismatic and generous children I have ever come across, and they feel fortunate enough to spend at least some of their days painting, creating music and playing in the safety of the mini gym at BGBJ. The literal translation of BGBJ from Bahasa Indonesia is “the Seeds of Bantar Gebang”, and the hub was started by Jakarta’s “Princess of the Dump”, Resa, who grew up here. She has done an absolutely inspiring job of creating a community that supports the growth and development of children whose families are unlikely to be able to afford to send them to school, providing them with a playground beyond that of the dangers of the landfill. Some of the childrens’ most prized possessions are things that have been found in the heaps of rubbish that surround where they live – remember this next time you go to throw something away for good; one man’s waste is another’s treasure.
BGBJ is a best case scenario though, as many wonderful volunteers and donors from all around the world make this a safe place to be, so that travellers like myself can go and see the landfill up close and try to understand the impact we are having on the planet we live in. Before Sunday I was aware that there was an environmental crisis occurring in the world, but I felt distanced. I presumed that I, as only one (fairly small) human being, in an overpopulated world of over 7.7 billion people couldn’t make a difference; and I wasn’t wrong, I mean to put it bluntly, no I probably can’t make a huge difference by myself. But that shouldn’t stop me, or you, or anyone from doing everything you can to at least slow down the rate at which humans irreversibly damage our planet. Bantar Gebang is predicted to be nearly at capacity, with only around 3 years left until it is full. Due to the fact that the plastic in the site won’t break down for at least 1000 years, that will be it for Bantar Gebang. That site is ruined for longer than we can humanly comprehend and we will be forced to move onto the next one, or resort to tipping waste into the oceans; another impossible solution.
Seeing it up close is terrifying, humbling and completely eye opening to say the least. I wish I could bring myself to try and describe the rancid smells, the visual, olfactory and literal poison, the bodies – so many bodies – and the sheer, indescribable amount of plastic waste that there was, but I can’t and I won’t even try to. I will do it no justice. Know that these photos are a representation of a singular pile, which was around 40m high and went on for kilometres. The entire site is hundreds of hectares wide. I bet most of you reading this can’t even comprehend what hundreds of hectares of land looks like, let alone a mountain of rubbish upwards of 40m high of the same mathematical area. Also remember that this is a landfill site that members of the public are actually allowed to see, and try to picture the larger, even more problematic sites that we have in the UK and EU, which we are banned from visiting. Out of sight, out of mind, right? It was surprisingly hard for me to picture anything like Bantar Gebang in the setting of any country like the UK, even though I consciously know that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites just like this and worse, which are brushed under the carpet, and ignored purely because they cannot be seen.
I hiked up the mountain, and the variation of plastic items I could see in the sea of waste surprised me, a lot of things I wouldn’t even think twice about buying or using or throwing away, such as flip flops, umbrellas, kids toys, CHEWING GUM, aluminium cans (yes, honestly, they are plastic lined and do not break down if left unrecycled), tea bags, the list goes on. Things that you think you can excuse yourself for. It is so difficult to make an effort to change your ways, as plastic and its production are ingrained in our society and infrastructure, but I will never be able to consume the same way again, and I really urge you to at least try to consider your personal waste production too. I know that there is a lot of environmental propaganda floating around the internet, and it becomes so easy to ignore the urgency of the message that is actually being communicated to you…This is just another post about plastic that will likely get lost somewhere in the ether, but I have been kicked into action by this experience, and if I can get through to even one person then at least I’ve made the effort. If we all made the effort then maybe we’d be able to actually begin to make a fathomable change. The beautiful landscapes I‘ve been blessed enough to experience every other day on my travels are compromised, the oceans are compromised, human lives are compromised, and every single one of our futures are at risk. It’s dangerously easy to feel distanced when you’re in the UK, where Health and Safety laws prevent you from being able to see the effects up close and experience them personally affecting your life; we aren’t forced to live in landfill sites, we have access to a high quality of healthcare, hindrances such as natural disasters are a distant concept; It is difficult to comprehend the scale of the disaster when it is not on your doorstep as it is for the residents of Bantar Gebang, and so, so many other sites around the world. But please try. Education in that region of the world needs to increase, but someone needs to step up and take the lead, set an example, and this is every single one of our responsibility. Even if you feel unaffected. It’s your future too. Normally, I would excuse my strong will and round off by apologising for the rant but this time I won’t. It is too serious and too dangerous to timidly accept the environmental crisis that each and every one of us is accountable for, and I’m not sorry. I’m proud to be at least trying to do my bit.
SOME WAYS IN WHICH I HAVE TRIED TO REDUCE MY ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT SINCE VISITING BANTAR GEBANG:
Bar shampoo/conditioner/soap – a quick and simple switch from packaged consumable bathroom goods to zero waste products. I have noticed that my bar shampoo and conditioner which I buy in Lush actually last so much longer than the bottles which I used to buy anyway, and smell great so it’s a win all round in my opinion!
Toothpaste tabs – sold as little solid chunks of toothpaste which you chew and then brush your teeth as normal. A lot of variations can be found with regard to flavour and ingredients.
Bamboo toothbrush – bamboo is a fantastic, sustainable alternative to plastic due to its prevalence and the speed at which it grows, again producing no plastic waste.
Washable mit – used with micellar water (unfortunately some plastic things are still unavoidable, always looking for suggestions to alternatives, though!) these mits can be used to remove make-up and then thrown in with a normal wash cycle so as to reduce your impact on both plastic waste and the water waste of the cotton production industry.
Buying second hand clothes – shopping in charity shops, or second hand fashion websites such as depop reduce the environmental damage caused by the fast fashion industry, arguably one of the most damaging aspects of Western culture due to the accessibility of online clothing stores, which produce vast amounts of waste in both production and short-lived, disposable nature of fashion trends.
Separating food waste – as food decomposes, it produces methane gas. This ranks amongst the most harmful of all the common “greenhouse gases”, and so disposing of food in your normal black bin can dramatically increase the levels of methane released into the environment. It is important to use a food bin where possible, so that the release of methane gas can be controlled properly, or even harnessed for use as a renewable energy resource.
Saying no to plastic – shopping for loose fruit and veg in independent stores, using canvas tote bags instead of plastic ones, carrying metal straws – the little ways in which you can reduce the amount of plastic that needs to be produced by corporate companies is endless.
Circular economy – a project working closely alongside Share Oxford at university has drawn my attention to the circular economy and its workings, and I believe it is very much a positive idea and a fantastic step in the right direction in terms of waste reduction, I’m keen to try and implement their borrowing system when I next may need to.
Reusable tupperware – yes, still plastic, but arguably better than cling film or plastic sandwich bags to store food, as these are consumable and contribute to plastic pollution.
Carbon offsetting – a lot of journeys that you take can actually be carbon offset by paying a small fee. If you travel a lot, this is something to consider. I pay to carbon offset all of my flights where I physically can.
Chilly’s bottle – no excuse to ever buy a plastic bottle when the water inside stays cold for 12 hours.
LifeStraw – when travelling countries without a clean water supply, this bottle filters the water so that it is safe to drink and therefore there is absolutely no need whatsoever to buy disposable plastic bottles.
4Ocean bracelet – every bracelet you buy they pull 1 pound of plastic from the ocean, protecting ecosystems and marine life.
Turning off electricity supply – we all know that fossil fuels are burnt to produce electricity, and release greenhouse gases which damage the ozone layer, so why not take the extra millisecond to flick a switch off at the source wherever possible, instead of leaving electronics on standby?
Awareness – at a base level trying to understand where you are buying from, the journey a product has gone on to be available to you, and the impact that has had on the environment.
The list of ways in which you can help to make a difference is endless, and you don’t have to do everything at once or even pretend that you are going to become a model citizen, but if you can easily incorporate a few changes into your daily routine then why shouldn’t you? If everyone had the same thought process, we’d likely see a slow but poignant attitudinal shift across the globe, and a positive environmental impact.. Acceptance of personal responsibility is the key to tackling the issue at large, and changes can be made if you refuse to accept defeat.