“Be a responsible citizen and take care of the planet,” has been drilled into our heads since we were children*. We learn to recycle, take a reusable bag grocery shopping, and not to litter. Trash is thrown in the bin and it’s taken away, never to be seen again. Streets and parks are generally clean. It’s easy to think that we’re fulfilling our duty to be eco conscious citizens. Add another step to taking care of our planet: refuse plastic.

I have now had the opportunity to view (the lack of) waste management in two tropical paradises: Siargao Island, Philippines and Bali, Indonesia. Siargao is often described as “Bali, twenty years ago.” Visitors usually seem to say the same thing; they hope it won’t turn into Bali. By that they mean they hope it remains free of commercialization, traffic, and an overabundance of waste on the land and in the water. Our feature image shows Bede Durbidge riding a trash filled wave in Indonesia, captured by Zak Noyle.

Plastic is the Most Common Element Found in the Ocean

Trash is very much in your face in both locations. Sprawling dumps don’t only mar the beautiful scenery. They are a public health issue and leak chemicals into the ground. Bali’s trash has escaped the dump sites and covers large areas of the ocean’s surface, killing sea life as it goes. It’s easy to think that we, the tourists, are not part of the problem. After all, aren’t we eco conscious citizens that recycle and don’t litter?

When there is a lack of waste management in a country, what it means to be an eco conscious citizen changes. The importance shifts from handling waste properly to whether we help generate the waste at all. How many times have we denounced plastic in the ocean in one moment and bought a plastic water bottle in the next? Lamented the dirty beaches and then left beer bottles on them during a party? Decried four plastic bags being used to wrap one take away meal, but not given ourselves the time to sit down and eat the meal at the restaurant?

Refuse plastic to keep the dump in Siargao from growing.
The Dump in Siargao. Photo: Janina

Plastic Absorbs Chemicals and Poisons Animals That Eat it

Tourists (and travelers for those of you who insist on making that distinction), we are directly and indirectly creating a significant part of the waste. It’s easy to say that our individual actions do not make a difference. More than 4 million tourists are estimated to have visited Bali in 2016. If each of us drank an average of 10 water bottles during our stay, that’s 40 million plastic water bottles. The ability to picture that amount of waste is incomprehensible to the human brain. No wonder we’re surfing in plastic.

Indonesia and the Philippines are two out of five countries that are believed to be responsible for 60% of the garbage in the ocean. Rapid westernization and tourism growth in Siargao and Bali have led to an exponential explosion of trash. The systems necessary for dealing with so much trash will need more time, money and research to be put into place. Don’t get it twisted, if you’re not refusing plastic in those countries you’re almost certainly contributing to garbage in the ocean.


Ocean Pollution Kills More than 100,000 Sea Mammals Annually

So, what can we do? I can promise that none of my suggestions are going to be new to any of you. I can promise that if all of us would actually follow through on them we would be able to make a difference to the tropical paradises we’re so quick to profess our love for.


To help keep the ocean clean:
  1. Refuse plastic. Bring a reusable water bottle and refill it at every opportunity. I prefer Klean Kanteen (if you’re buying in November, you can get a deal here).
  2. Refuse plastic. Request service water at restaurants instead of accepting bottled.
  3. Refuse plastic. Only drink soda out of glass bottles (or stick to beer.)
  4. Refuse plastic. Pack or buy a reusable shopping bag.
  5. Refuse plastic. Don’t takeaway food.

That’s five suggestions that are actually one suggestion. Stop complaining about the trash and do something about your part in it.

*This article is written from a western viewpoint. It does not encompass the views or experiences of all readers.

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