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The magic of Kasongan river, away from the garbageThe magic of Kasongan river, away from the garbage

Indonesia is not only a country of amazing scenes and a thousands cultures, it also shares a huge problem with other South Asian Countries: garbage.

In Western world we are used to throw our bag full of sins in the dumpster, and forget about it. In the best case we separate the rubbish for recycling, and that's it, not too much effort.

Here in Indonesia it doesn't work like that, there is no collective system for collecting the garbage, let alone a recycling system.

Rafting Kasongan River

One evening we were offered to participate to a Sunday event by our neighbor Josh, a local environmental activist from Rumah Inspirasi Guide, consisting in covering some miles of lenght of our river in the village of Kasongan, with specialized rafts built to collect the garbage. Our role was only to be present to help raise awareness among the people, not to clean the river (this was done in other occasions involving more locals), so not too much effort from our side.

It's always seen as important here in Indonesia for the organizers to have some "Bule faces" (Bule is how White foreigners are called in Indonesia) to give more credibility to their events: and we were happy to put our faces for an higher environmental purpose.

Ground covered in plasticGround covered in plastic

Already while walking from our house next to the river towards the meeting point, we were able to see fields and a small forest completely covered in plastic bags; every 100 meters a damping point to throw garbage in the river and "Ayam Kampung" (countryside chickens) feeding on the garbage with their chicks.

We passed through paths we have never covered before, and seen not only garbage, but also how beautiful are the surroundings of the river, and how much potential they could have as a touristic destination, or just as a nice place for locals to enjoy and spend their time. It's a shame it is kept in such a state.

Walking along the bank of the river in KasonganWalking along the bank of the river in Kasongan

After waiting for the canonical couple of Indonesian hours of delay,  and ascending the river for a few kilometers, we started our way down with specialized and colorful aluminum rafts.

The ride was quite nice and entertaining, but we were careful not to be hit by the smallest of the drops coming from the river. We wouldn't have liked to be in the place of other two activists that fell into the water! In fact not only it is full of plastic, but also it is used as disposal system by industries, the most popular being the Sugar factory owned by the Sultan of Yogyakarta himself. We were told that in the early morning it's possible to see boiling, bubbling liquids coming from the factory and entering the river.

Plastic on one bank, and a dropping point on the other bankPlastic on one bank, and a dropping point on the other bank

Locals instead were quite comfortable with the filthy water: during our descent with the raft, we met people fishing underwater (I don't think they could see further than 5 cm away) with masks, a man emptying his intestine with his family around, and another guy half immersed in the river, shocking the fishes with electricity. The same water that you use for your needs, where you drop plastic and chemical, is eventually entering your food chain.

Garbage rafts descending Kasongan riverGarbage rafts descending Kasongan river

The more we were descending the river, the more we were impressed not only by the plastic, but also by its beauty, with fairy bamboo galleries covering us on our way.

From the environmental point of view instead, the tour was quite disarming: every single branch leaning toward the river is covered in plastic bags. When the water is rising because of the rain, it is collecting and carrying all of the plastic and non-organic waste dumped in the banks, to eventually put it in the vegetation when the river retreat: it looks like the bamboo bushes are decorated for Christmas, but with plastic bags and dirt instead of colorful balls.

Plastic packages decorating the vegetation as a Christmas TreePlastic packages decorating the vegetation as a Christmas Tree

Close up of the garbage stuck in the vegetationClose up of the garbage stuck in the vegetation

We eventually reached our destination point, where we were interviewed before going back home.

Interviews at the end of the tripInterviews at the end of the trip

Garbage system in Indonesia and the new way: Bottle Project

There are basically 3 ways of disposing of the rubbish in Indonesia:

- Burn it;

- Throw it somewhere;

- Put it underground;

- Throw it in the river.

Since our house in Kasongan village is facing a river on one of its sides, it's not difficult to understand what's the favourite option in this area.

Packages are not too appealing also for "freelance garbage collectors", usually the poorest of the poor people, since they are not too consistent, and mostly not reciclable. And still here in Indonesia, I've seen much less recyclers than in richer countries like Romania or Turkey, where poor people take initiative and collect garbage to sell to recycling companies. Here it is probably not perceived  as a business, or maybe there is a cultural barrier, who knows, so that it's quite rare to meet "professional recyclers".

Pleasant environment of Kasongan RiverPleasant environment of Kasongan River

And that's where it comes again our neighbor Josh: he created a system that can take care of this packages, and he called it "Bottle Project".

The idea received some attention and has been featured in tv and newspapers. It consists on collecting the packages and putting them inside a plastic bottle, using a stick when it becomes too tight. Schools and local children were involved to make the project going, collecting the packages abandoned in the villages, in order to change the mentality of the new generations. Eventually Josh will collect all of these bottles to create an artistic project or reuse them to be integrated in community buildings.

Garbage floating in Kasongan riverGarbage floating in Kasongan river

While it's still not the best solution for the future, the bottle project is a great idea given the present conditions, possibly to be put into practice exactely now, an alternative to burning or damping in the river; it helps to keep the plastic in one place instead of spreading it in the environment. We are contributing ourselves to the project, and in the first 4 months Me an Oti managed to fill one well compressed bottle only, meaning that all of the packages that otherwise could be spread around or floating in the river, now are safely stored in one place. We are now on our way to fill the second bottle, hopefully we will manage to keep it as empty as possible. 

Activists in the raftActivists in the raft

Our way of dealing with waste in Kasongan

If I was asked what would be the best solution to dispose the garbage among the ones currently available in this moment, I don't know what I would choose. Dumping the waste around it's polluting visually and phisically the environment, but at the same time burning is generating toxic gases invalidating the health of all the people. On the way to the Art school we attend here in Indonesia, we pedal with our bikes for around 15 minutes through local roads and rise fields, but sometimes we still have to use face masks because of people burning garbage here and there.

We personally started a mini recycling station inside our house, after seeing that the nice woman that is helping us to clean the common spaces of the big house we are sharing with other 10 people, is throwing our garbage in the river and realizing we were responsible for that.

We started to separate plastic and glass bottles (that we were doing already before) that are sent to recycle somewhere through our cleaning lady.

We started to compost our food scraps, with the help of many nice worms waiting for their daily meal, and to separate paper and cardboard that can be recycled or even put in the compost.

What is left out are basically packages and plastic bags: even in Indonesia everything is packed, if not at the Supermarket, at the local grocery shop where they pack it themselves:  it's a fight each time to let them understand that you have you own reusable bag and you don't want a free new plastic bag.

That's why we started also to rinse our plastic packages, and put them to dry, trying to reuse them as much as possible: here in Indonesia they sometimes serve also drinks and food in plastic bags!

It's clear that we need to change the system and the mentality of the people: we can influence the market by not choosing products that are packed in plastic, but with all of efforts possible, I'm aware myself, that this is sometime not possible because there are no environmental friendly options for what you  really need.

That's why we look forward for a regulation coming from an higher level, promoting the use of recyclable packages or no packages at all: but this won't probably come true quite soon.

I remember reading the experience of one of my previous adventure mate, Jamey, in the ecological Community of Sadhana Forest in India, that did an experiment for one year, taking responsibility for all the garbage he produced. That means to collect all that you cannot recycle, in a bag under your bed, seeing it increase during the year, sleeping with it and living every moment of your day with the rubbish in your room.

I'm sure that if everybody would do that, we would think twice before buying a non recyclable product, and we would solve the waste problem much more easily.

Now it's up to you to try!


Davide VadalàDavide Vadalà
In 2009 I quit my job to chase my dream of exploring our planet in a sustainable way and I haven't stopped yet. I love nature, sustainability, travel photography, handicrafts and hiking, and I never stop dreaming. More about Davide Vadala'.

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Davide and Oti

We are Davide and Otilia, two friends with itchy feet, living a non conventional life traveling around the world and learning everyday something new....
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