Back in 1994, Rio Helmi and the other founding fathers of the now defunct original environmental foundation Yayasan Wisnu invited a young American to come and intern here in Bali. Olivier turned out to be quite the firecracker.
Now, twenty years later, Olivier Pouillon is still here, a tiny bit mellower, married to Ita Budwati Candraningsih, running his own company CV Peduli Bali (known as Bali Recycling), and is still mucking around in the garbage.
Rio Helmi: When you first came over for Wisnu in 1994, were you thinking it would be just a short internship kind of thing?
Olivier Pouillon: I thought I would be in Bali for maybe 6 months or at the most one year. I would take my experience and go back to the US and find work in an environmental NGO or company. That was the original plan.
RH: What made you stay?
OP: You guys (Wisnu board) handed me the reins of the NGO since it seemed that you all felt it was on the verge of collapse or dissolution. I saw it as a lucky opportunity since I could pretty much try whatever since I couldn’t really ruin an organization that was already in ruin. It would either continue collapsing or rise up from the ashes, literally volcanic ashes. (When I arrived to the office for the first time it was covered in about 4cm of Batur’s volcanic ash, ha ha ha.)
OP: My vision is directed by the belief/understanding that we are all lucky to be here and that the Earth is really a small speck in the Universe but a special speck. And that everything here is clearly interconnected (sounds hokey but true). We are really just star dust manifested in so many seemingly different forms, a tree, a rock, a bird, a whale, a man, a woman, a pencil, a chair, ad infitum. So taking care of the ‘environment’ is really just a recognition of those interconnections and show of awe and respect for everything and ourselves.
Peduli Bali is really just my little way of acting on those beliefs and keeping a constant reminder of these infinite links.
Also Peduli Bali has other functions: It is a business to make profit by cleaning things up and making a better environment when too often making money and preserving the environment are perceived as mutually exclusive things. Also a showcase for practical actions instead of empty theory with no action….you know, NATO.
RH: What in realistic terms do you think is accomplishable in terms of environment in Bali in general, waste disposal in particular? Is it practical to think of it as a sustainable industry?
OP: Sustainable waste industry… yes absolutely. It is not there yet but in less than fifty years there will be no modern concept of waste. In nature there is no such thing as waste; ‘waste’ are just materials on endless cycles to be re-used by us or back into nature. Modern man has created the concept of waste to create a false concept of scarcity or false needs that feeds modern economies and today we are confronted with the contradictions of the system. It is not really a growth model but a destructive model, a ‘cut off your nose in spite of your face’ (sic) model.
The waste industry deals with the economics system’s shortcomings head-on and that is what we do in Bali – we mainly confront the contradiction of the dominant industry of tourism. In the end, the waste industry is a safeguard for the tourism industry; without it tourism would self destruct.
In realistic terms, in less than five years (before 2020) we can transform how Bali deals with its waste.
RH: Related to that question, does the need to innovate and develop business initiatives in this business in any way distract you from some sort of “idealism” (sorry, stupid word but can’t think of another one right now)?
OP: No. We take a practical, step-by-step approach that may seem like innovation but is really the natural evolution of what we are doing. It may seem innovative but that’s only because we are the first to do things that actually were done decades ago. We are often just reviving old practices that have been sidelined for too long.
RH: There have been some bitter moments for you with this business. What have you learnt from those? Are these situations avoidable in the future? Lowest moment? Proudest moment?
OP: Trust your instincts and be clear on what you expect of others. Don’t trust a smile and a handshake from anyone – get it in writing. Watch your back and the back of your fellow garbage men.
Getting dengue for a second time really sucked. Seeing a local Balinese trash hauler get thrown in jail and intimidated by a big hotel and not being able to help was a real low point. Seeing an eight-year-old kid on illegal dump with a really bad infection that was possibly life threatening and not being able to help. He was playing with burning plastic and got badly injured.
Proudest…well that is still coming. Got lots of good things in store for the future.
RH: Like everywhere else, environmental activism in Bali comes with its own risks. There’s money and office at stake. Have you ever felt truly threatened (you know, a clear and present danger kinda thing?
OP: Oh yeah a few times. Knives or sabit in my face. Threatening messages. As an outsider, a foreigner, a bule and also as a lowly ‘trash man’ it is easier for folks to direct blame or anger on me as a way to deflect away their responsibility or avoid accountability for their failures. If you are running a business and something goes wrong, it is easier to find a scapegoat that is outside your circle of associations to place blame. Avoiding responsibility… isn’t it a common human trait? Starts when you blame your little brother for breaking something at home while throwing a ball in the house.
RH: How does your family (your wife and kids) see your career and work?
OP: My wife is a big part of the business. Could not have survived and been successful without her help. She is a key voice and active participant in the company.
RH: Who has been the biggest influence on your environmental philosophy and why?
OP: So many people from David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, my eighth grade science teacher (Mrs. Tyler, I think), Bill McDonough & Michael Braungart, Carl Sagan, Buckminster Fuller and many more. But I think the biggest influence has come from my mother who really practiced what she preached when no one even understood or cared about ‘organic food’ and living a holistic lifestyle. She was way ahead of her time and still going strong.
RH: Ever think you might do something else for a living?
OP: Oh sure, but now I’m having too much fun mucking around in the crap to change now. Also I recognized long ago that to do this type of work in the setting I am in, you need patience and long-term focus to be successful.
1. Recycling bottles to be made into homewares.
2. Loading and labeling toxic waste to be trucked to Java to an official toxic waste disposal facility.
3. Olivier on site.
NOTE: “Peduli Bali “ is an acronym for “Perusahaan Daur Ulang Limbah Bali”, “Bali waste recycling company”, hence its English trade name, Bali Recycling. For more info visit www.balirecycling.com