Can you live a Zero-Waste Life in Bali?

On a worldwide level much hoopla surrounds waste management and the effort to clean up our soiled and littered planet. Some countries and communities are way ahead of the pack and most every country in the world is doing something to contain, limit or manage their waste.

Cleanup has many guises. But where does all that gathered waste go? You’re looking at a mountain of wasteables that are disposed of every day: detritus from gardens and households, restaurants, hotels and other small and big businesses, industrial and agricultural waste, mainly toxic chemicals.

Resource management and zero waste are nice buzz phrases and embrace some lofty principles and philosophy. The accepted definition is that zero waste is a goal for people to embrace a lifestyle that emulates sustainable natural cycles where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. On the theoretical level, proponents of zero waste are talking about ideal conditions, about our connection to nature – where, by the way, there is NO waste as Mother Nature recycles everything – and our role of being a part of it instead of feeling apart from it. They will tell you that waste is not waste until it’s wasted, which is something we should avoid or strive to ban from our life.

To understand proper waste management, you have to apply whole system thinking, from beginning to end of the product cycle – which is often not the case. People tend to zero in on parts of the system like the production of consumables, the extraction of fossil fuels or raw materials to produce these consumables, the transportation and the huge carbon footprint of the product being moved from manufacturer to consumer, the packaging for those products which can take on many forms, the waste disposal and the intangibles such as health and social impacts, the struggle between eco (which embraces all of us) and ego (individual needs and wants).


It starts with production – Experts claim that waste is inherently a design problem and should be rectified at the beginning by designing the product’s discarded materials to become the source for other users, exactly as happens in nature. In other words, products and their packaging should be designed to be re-used, recycled, repaired or repurposed. With the understanding that production should also use clean energy, i.e. non-toxic or natural resources or elements, to manufacture them.

The producer also needs packaging to safeguard his products during transportation but currently, not much is done to ensure the recyclable or compostable nature of this packaging so that we are inundated with unwanted plastic containers or wrappers, foil packets, Styrofoam packing and other unnatural materials that do not recycle themselves.

All this to say that we end up with a lot of waste after the product is eaten, consumed, installed or in use. In Bali a lot of that is readily visible as garbage by the side of the roads, in the subaks, creeks, rivers and ocean. You also need to think about the electronic waste (with toxic components) you produce after you upgrade that old computer, buy that new hand phone or tablet, even replace your dead batteries or burned-out light bulbs. What about your household toxics like paint, solvents, cleaning products? Where do your old appliances and cars end up? Here in Bali, none of that gets properly recycled or collected when its end-of-life phase is reached.

Zero waste thinking must start with producers, designers and engineers who should be rethinking the planned obsolescence philosophy of manufactured goods and build more durable products, re-engineer throw-away packaging and design something that precludes single-use packaging. Computer hardware and appliances should be built so that their various parts can be separated and recoverable; chemicals and toxic materials should be substituted with natural products. The resources used to build the products should be investigated, reviewed and replaced with sustainable or renewable energy to fit in with zero waste philosophy, heeding the caveat that even compostable packaging may require trees to be felled.

Have you ever thought about the side effects of waste? Climate change springs to mind, air pollution and toxic drainage in our soils and water resources. Also diseases caused by bad environments and air, soil and water pollution; social and cultural impacts. The list is depressing.

Transportation causes a huge carbon footprint as many products are shipped from far-away places. A good deal is of necessity like in Bali, where local production is very limited. But among all the imports, ask yourself how many are really necessary and how many are sheer wants instead of needs. Do we really need blueberries grown in Chile, or beans from Kenya?


Present initiatives – Many communities in the western world have made great strides in managing their waste products. Household and industrial waste is collected, sorted, recycled, composted or otherwise diverted from landfills or incineration. Some places, like San Francisco manages to divert 80% of their collected waste which is the highest recycling and compost rate in North America; communities in Flanders come close with the highest residential waste diversion rate of Europe with 73%; others are not far behind. Some countries in Europe have enacted laws to force producers to take back their containers or packaging, even their obsolete or end-of-life products for repurposing or recycling. In Bali only very modest results have been booked regardless of the effort that has gone into containing and managing some of our waste. Plastic bags have been banned though not from all places, a few recycling centres are in operation and cleanup crews are most everywhere. However, with our overflowing landfills and untold waste that still makes its way to the seas surrounding us, we are still near the bottom of the worldwide cleanup effort. We have some way to go to come even close to the zero waste goal. Waste collection and management is still not a big priority here and the government is hardly supportive in terms of providing adequate funding for the setup of better systems.


Conclusion – Is zero waste a chimera? Understand that zero waste is a philosophy, not yet reality, a guidance to approach the perfect zero waste ways of nature. In order to attain that goal our waste economy must be morphed into a circular economy where waste is eliminated and resources are continually re-used on a model of production that practices the ‘borrow, use, reuse and return’ philosophy. Zero waste on a practical level means we do not waste or waste less.

In the end we all bear responsibility to work towards a zero waste life, whether we are consumers, politicians, or corporate bigwigs. As individuals, consumers and professionals we can choose to consume less or more responsibly; to bear pressure on producers by refusing to buy their unwholesome products or their un-compostable or unrecyclable packaging; we can pressure our politicians to enact better waste management laws. It is still an uphill struggle but you can start here and now to do your bit to be a responsible waste manager.


By Ines Wynn

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