A chance meeting between writer-photographer Rio Helmi, who was shooting an old man gathering plastic waterbottles in the ricefields, with restauranteur-permaculturist Made Januryasa who was speeding down the road on his bicycle led to an invitation to check out one of PLASTIC-X-CHANGE’s monthly exchanges in Lod Tunduh.

text and photos ©Rio Helmi

Janur is an intense but gentle man, with a shaven head and the bristly beginnings of a goatee. He comes from a small village west of Tabanan, Jangkahan near the better known village of Kerambitan.  I too am shaven but nowhere near as trim and energetic as he is. He has been at this for a year while still running his restaurant, Moksha, and also the permaculture garden around it. If you had to use one adjective to describe him it would be “positive”.

“One of the principles of permaculture is that inside a problem there is a solution.” he says, and continues: “at the beginning of the pandemic I was looking at what the challenges that we have right now. The first one is the environment, you know plastic is everywhere. The second one is that people have lost their jobs due to covid, so at least in Bali we have a basic need which is rice, to survive. The third one is dignity.”

Inside the banjar there is a heap of sorted plastic, some tied, some in bags but definitely well sorted and the whole thing is well organized. People rock up, the banjar helpers quickly go out and greet them, and with their hanging scales weigh each lot. The person then claims however much rice what they brought was worth and heads home happy. The whole process takes roughly 10 minutes. PlasticXchange has go this down. “You know exchange is not a new idea but this particular exchange was born last year when the pandemic started.” Janur offers – interestingly he doesn’t use the word “I” very much.

He is more interested in discussing how make this a positive experience all the way around. He talks about the concept of “two hands coming together”. What Janur points out is that while it is true that the pandemic has brought out the charitable side of people, and that that is something basically good, there can be an aspect to this that isn’t so great if one isn’t careful. Of course the rice comes from the kind donations of many people, companies and individuals, but he points out that if charities simply give out supplies, it’s too easy for a kind of ‘beggar’ mentality to develop, where people just expect handouts.

What PlasticXchange aims at by getting people to collect and sort the plastic waste in their area is multi-level. Primarily of course it cleans up the environment, but it gets people to be more conscious about polluting their environment; to learn how to sort their trash out properly between organic, non-organic and so forth; and of course because all of this is rewarded in a clearly defined system they earn their rice in a manner which maintains their self respect. “And look, they even get creative” Janur laughs as he holds up a cluster of plastic bottles tied together like what would be an art installation in London.

For now, there are nearly 200 villages in Bali that are participating in this plastic trash for rice program. Here in Lod Tunduh alone where I visited an exchange day at Banjar Tengah, there are 11 banjars participating, nearly all on a monthly basis.

The morning I was there, the people of Banjar Tengah had managed to collect nearly half a ton of plastic and related inorganic trash in one month. The trash is sorted by recycleability and so forth, but nothing that is sorted and reasonably clean is turned back. People arrived with wheelbarrows, on overloaded scooters or just walking. The atmosphere is friendly and while there is of course banter (it is Bali after all) there is plenty of dignity to go around.

A truck arrives while I am chatting with Janur, it’s the aggregators from Sukawati. They take and deal with everything – not just the valuable recyclables as do many scavenger operations. Interestingly enough they are Balinese – a rarity in this field largely dominated by Madurese networks from East Java. A TV crew from Denpasar wafts in and shoots 3-4 staged setups in about 10 minutes “for Earth Day” then slip out. I’m not really sure what they got but it’s not my business, but I do notice the cameraman’s bumbag.

It will take the aggregator truck team about 30 minutes, and then there will be no trace left of  the morning’s 500kg of trash in the Banjar. A clean operation you could say. As the morning’s exchange wraps up Janur comes over to me with a big smile on his face: “You have to love it. There is rice left over, not all of it was exchanged, so this banjar is sending the extra on to the next banjar.” That’s community, that’s dignity.


For more information and to see how you can participate: www.plasticexchange.org