by Graeme MacRae, an anthropologist from Massey University, New Zealand, who first visited in Ubud in 1977. He lived here with his family for 18 months in 1993-6.  Since then he has been back most years for 6-8 weeks. Graeme did his PhD thesis based on Ubud research: “Economy, Ritual and History in a Balinese Tourism Town” at the University of Auckland, 1997. 

We all like to complain about the traffic, but not long ago it was the rubbish. Now the streets and streams are (almost) clean and each morning men in uniforms empty the tidy blue bins outside each house into trucks which take it away. How did this miracle happen? And where does it all go? If you’d rather not know, don’t read on, or perhaps skip to the (relatively) good news towards the end.

The bad news is that most of it gets dumped where it shouldn’t. The slightly better news is that it could be worse, and needn’t even be that bad. The best news is that there is a system nearby that works quite well and could become a model for all of Ubud.

The trucks that collect from most of Ubud are run by Bina Wisata, which has a long history, but is now a branch of LPM, which functions a bit like a municipal council. They collect from every household and business in the kelurahan that bothers to put a bin out. When the trucks are full they head east out of town, supposedly on their way to the district (kabupaten) landfill and composting centre at Temesi, just past Gianyar. But they don’t get there, not one of them. Instead they tip into an illegal dump much closer to Ubud.

This dump was, until 2010, a beautiful, forested ravine, between a village and ricefields, into which dozens of trucks daily, from Ubud and several other villages have been dumping mixed rubbish for the past four years. The ravine is about 30m deep and 10 m wide and is now filled for about 600 metres. In another year or two the entire ravine will be filled. Toxic leachate is almost certainly seeping downstream and into the groundwater. Methane is almost certainly being generated within the fermenting mass. If we are lucky it will (sooner or later) leak into the atmosphere and ultimately reach the greenhouse layer. If we are less lucky it might simply explode. This is the flipside of Ubud’s clean, green streets.

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But why does this happen and why don’t “they” do something about it? The reasons are mostly to do with money and “they” are a bit elusive. Let’s start at the bottom end.

Households are supposed to pay a monthly fee of Rp15,000 for collection of their rubbish. Some pay and some don’t. Businesses pay according to their size. Together this brings in an income of about Rp.30 million per month. The cost of running the system is about Rp.40million per month. This is not a cashflow your accountant would recommend and it is where the problems start.

Because of the financial deficit, the men working the trucks are paid only a fairly minimal wage (Rp. 1 million/month) so, not surprisingly, they look for ways to supplement their incomes. One is selling the materials with value for recycling (plastics, metals, paper and glass) to scavengers (pemulung) along the roadsides.  Another is saving the money they are given for transport and tipping costs. By tipping at the illegal dump they save probably half of their fuel money and half their tipping fees.

Until the men are paid better wages, their managers feel they have little bargaining power to enforce better practices. But none of this would be possible without the illegal dump.

The dump is best understood as a kind of feral village development project, initiated by one banjar (neighbourhood) who were tired of having to cross the ravine to get to their fields and wanted more space for parking and more income. They started dumping their own rubbish into the ravine (a time-honoured default solution) but then they invited other villages to dump there as well. Several well-known resort hotels dumped there too until they were alerted to the problem.

A small community of Javanese pemulung lives on the dump, collecting the recycleable materials for sale to middlemen who onsell it to recycling factories in Surabaya. They no doubt pay the village for this privilege. In the short term the village receives a steady income stream from their (very reasonable) tipping fees and in the longer term, when the ravine is entirely full, they plan to seal it with asphalt to create a parking area for visitors to ceremonies in several large temple nearby, thereby ensuring an ongoing income stream.


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The perbekel (head of the village) at the time either turned a blind eye and/or took a cut. When a new perbekel took over, he was horrified and wanted to stop it immediately, but because the ravine was already half full from either end, and presumably to avoid conflict, he decided it was a lesser evil to complete the filling than create a toxic lake in the middle. Once it is full, he will not allow any more, but already several other similar illegal dumps have sprung up in nearby villages in anticipation of the future bonanza.

What about the kabupaten (regency district) government?  Indonesian law explicitly prohibits unpermitted dumping. Kabupatens are responsible for administering such laws.  In mid-2010, when a number of resort hotels became aware that their own wastes were ending up there, a delegation of their managers met with the bupati (district regent) and asked him to deal with it. He did so by (at least unofficially) sanctioning the dump.  Now a government machine actually works at the dump, but it came at the request of the new perbekel to help manage the mess. It has been suggested that the government turns a blind eye to this and other illegal dumps because of the inability of its own landfill at Temesi to handle any more than it does. Beyond that we can only speculate.

So, if the causes are a combination of economic factors and government inaction, is there an alternative?  We don’t need to look far for a partial one. Padangtegal is part of the tourism environment of Ubud, but it is a separate desa adat (traditional village) which is governed in an unusually democratic and efficient manner. It also has a considerable economic asset in the form of the Monkey Forest, a tourist attraction which provides a large revenue stream and this money is managed collectively and used for purposes of common good, including waste management.

In 2012, with help from a private waste management business (Bali Recycling) they designed a collection system in which households separate their rubbish into bins of organic and non-organic material. Each morning trucks collect the contents of these bins. Initially the recycleables were delivered to Bali Recycling while the organic material went to Temesi where instead of paying to tip, they are paid in compost, because the material is already sorted. This compost is used for new planting in the Monkey Forest. Since then, the partnership with Bali Recycling has ended and the recycleable material is now sold to scavengers (pemulung) along the road to Temesi to supplement the workers’ wages.

The system is not perfect but it works: most rubbish is collected and none of it ends up where it shouldn’t. The streets of Padangtegal are as clean as Ubud, but here the backstage is clean too. So could Ubud simply upgrade their system to this model?  It comes back to the money. The Padangtegal system is only possible because both its setup costs and its running costs are subsidised almost entirely by the Monkey Forest. There are plans to shift the collection costs gradually to households but it is unlikely to achieve self-funding in the foreseeable future. To adapt this system to Ubud, would require a substantial injection of capital and/or subsidy from somewhere. And as we all know, nobody in Ubud has any money.

You will find most of Graeme MacRae’s writings at

 all photos were taken at the Pejeng dump site south of the Pura Penataran Sasih temple. All photos ©Rio Helmi