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A fun day at the beach turns into a learning opportunity

When people think of Bali they usually imagine beautiful beaches, stunning landscapes, friendly people, a welcoming culture and delicious foods. 

However, there’s another side many people might not think about at first but soon becomes very evident once they arrive. Bali has a massive plastic issue.

Not just litter here and there, but Bali had to declare a “garbage emergency” spanning several popular tourist beaches back in 2017. Plastic and rubbish was piling on beaches and divers were (and still are) reporting clouds of it in the ocean.

Before plastic was introduced to the countries that make up Southeast Asia, people simply wrapped their food with banana leaves or other organic materials. It was not a problem if these items were thrown on the ground, so it’s been hard to break from that habit. 

Agus Satriawibawa, swim instructor and legal & operations consultant at our partner programme Swimdo in Bali, believes people are starting to realise the issue of plastic pollution. But to most of them it’s more about how things look to tourists instead of the environmental impact. So much of Bali’s economy relies on tourism so it’s a legitimate concern to keep things clean from that perspective. 

Due to the more serious issues surrounding the quality of the water in and around the island, water stewardship has become a common topic brought up during Swimdo’s swimming lessons with the kids in the community of Keramas. 

Founded by Seamus Pettigrew and Neal From in 2015, Swimdo started as a passion project after Seamus realised many of his Balinese students couldn’t swim. He loved being a part of the community in Bali, teaching English and surfing, so he did what he could to give back. 

Seamus says, “Through education, they work to help the children understand that water can be a place of joy, not something that takes or something to fear.”

This is why SwimTayka has partnered with Swimdo. They share the same mission of preventing children from drowning and teaching them how to care for the water. In past joint programs, in addition to survival swim lessons, children were taught about the environmental issues impacting their community. They learned how they could take action to prevent their waste from ending up in the waterways. 

Swimdo has always been eco-minded from the start, but beach cleanups were not actually something the organisation did with students at first. 

During a day playing at the beach, students started to complain about how dirty the beach and river were – “We don’t like how it looks. Why don’t we clean?” To the kids, a clean beach equals a fun beach. But because it would have been too dangerous to clean the river too, the kids became sad. They still cleaned other areas but Agus and other instructors realised they had an opportunity to talk about how to prevent this in the first place. It was a chance to have a discussion with their students about how pollution affects the health of their community, the wildlife, the food they eat, and the farmers growing the food. 

They had tried to teach the students how to handle their rubbish in the past, but it is such a foreign concept to them and hard to understand. It wasn’t until the issue became more personal and interfered with their playtime that they started to care. 

Children have a hard time understanding serious issues sometimes. By infusing gameplay into their swim lessons, the instructors at SwimDo help the children further understand the impact of the waste and pollution issues facing the island (and world).

There’s a popular pool game called ‘Sharks and Minnows’ they adapted. The idea is that if a minnow is touched by a shark, they become another shark until they eat all the minnows. In this new eco-version there’s a “plastic monster” and if they touch a minnow, the minnow then turns into another piece of plastic until the whole pool is filled with plastic. The game is meant to  engage the children in a way that really helps them visualise that plastic in the water is not fun and how destructive this problem is to wildlife. 

The good news is the Indonesian government has started to focus more on the environmental issues facing the country. They’ve even launched a national plan to cut ocean plastic waste 70% by 2025. A single-use plastic and styrofoam ban is now in effect on Bali as well as mass cleanups throughout the year. Businesses have also started to collect and manage the waste from around the island. Ordinary people can also collect plastic and turn it in for money at the Plastic Bank, which then recycles it.

Agus says that he sees change happening for the better but it’s going to take time, “People are busy trying to make a living and not thinking too much about how they manage their waste.” It’s more a matter of incentivising the issue to get people to make it a priority. Like the kids wanting to play on a clean beach, some people are motivated by the possibility of making money off of the trash they collect and making beaches more attractive to tourists. He believes that over time people will understand the bigger meaning, but right now it’s all about trying to inspire better habits in the kids and their community.