Tall, lanky, and friendly, Olivier has a one-track mind focussed on one pressing issue: garbage. If it wasn’t for his hard work and dedication over the past eighteen years, this glorious island would almost certainly look quite different today. Through his innovative waste management, recycling and upcycling company, Bali Recycling (Peduli Bali) Olivier has worked tirelessly to divert Bali’s trash from piling up and poisoning the air, land, rivers and oceans. Established in 2011, Bali Recycling runs an integrated waste collection and processing facility that recycles paper, plastic, metals, glass & organic waste. They provide collection services around the island, material recovery and hazardous waste removal. Unique to Bali Recycling is their upcycling program which aims to make better use of waste material by producing glasses, plastic tote bags, used rubber wallets and cases that are sold all over the island and overseas.
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Photograph by Suki Zoe

In the mid-1990’s, while working for a local enviro- NGO, Olivier saw something he’d never forget. While surveying illegal resort dumping in the mangroves around Nusa Dua, he witnessed a infant die. The boy was living with his family in the dumping ground, where they made a living rummaging through hotel waste for whatever they could sell. The child was less than a year old. Born on the dump, breathing putrid and toxic air from the burning piles of rubbish, the child had little chance of survival. Deeply shaken from this experience, Olivier decided to make waste management his life work, seeking to influence tourism industry to protect, not destroy, this island ‘paradise’. He has been true to his word.

Olivier Pouillon grew up in Washington, DC, the son of a French journalist and an Austrian organic restaurateur. As part of his Environmental Studies degree at Hunter College in New York, he came to Bali in 1991 to study urban issues. He found Indonesia to be an adventurous place and knew he would return. In 1994, he moved to Bali permanently, working with the Wisnu Foundation in Ubud to begin his battle with the mountainous piles of rubbish strewn all over the island. Not a career of glamour, but a career that should be recognized by those of us now enjoying the upswing and promise of a restored, beautiful island.Before a recent talk at Betelnut’s monthly Pecha Kucha events (hosted by Hubud), Inspired Bali caught up with Olivier to ask him a few questions.

Who are your main customers? In general, Indonesians make up the bulk of our customers. There is a misconception held by many Westerners that locals don’t care about the environment and that they don’t ‘get it’. That really has not been our experience. Our number one customer demographic now is local housewives, grandmothers and grandfathers, and students. We work with many restaurants and just a few hotels (Alila Ubud, Chedi Club, Suly Resort) but in sheer numbers we have over 100 individual Indonesian family customers. Our smallest demographic is private villas that many of the readers of Inspired Bali live in. This probably means that many of the places that you sleep, eat, and enjoy spa treatments do not have proper waste disposal. Hello river dump.

It is commonly believed that educating children in social problems such as HIV/ AIDS, pollution, etc. will help build a bright future. But you seem to have a different angle? Yes, we take a different approach. Sometimes the best target is the older generation. Some of our best customers are grandmothers who run a warung or take care of the grandkids or both. They are part of our Recycling Club where they get money for their trash. You know … trash to cash. So when grandma tells them not to litter, but rather to put it in the recycling bin, the kids listen. The kids get it, because grandma has extra money to buy them gifts or treats or even phone credit. The kids also start to collect ‘waste’ from school, home, etc. and bring it to grandma to recycle. In Bali and much of Indonesia, the older generation has the respect of the kids. Kids listen to their grandparents so when grandma says “recycle”, the kids recycle.

Your business has taken some unconventional and innovative approaches to waste management. Can you tell us more about that? Working in the environmental field and especially with waste is very challenging in a country like Indonesia. You need to have patience, persistence and a strong vision. If not, it’s hard to make inroads and be successful. We have gone through many trials and tribulations with very difficult, unique, complicated, and stressful situations I could not have predicted. We have wanted to quit many times because getting things done here can be so frustrating. However, on a positive side we always seem to find imaginative solutions to our challenges, and they create new and unique opportunities. That is how we started our upcycling of glass bottles. Many people assume that glass is easily recycled— not the case here. We get hundreds of wine bottles a day from our customers and they start to pile up fast. We found ways to upcycle them by making cups, drinking glasses, bowls, carafes, lanterns, lamps, vases and the list goes on.

What are three things that have surprised you most about working with the Balinese on waste management. In Bali there is Sekala and Niskala,the seen and unseen, which usually refers to thespiritual realm. But that concept is applicable toother spheres of Balinese society as well. What I’velearned is that things are often never what theyappear to be here. There are lots of layers andsome you will not uncover. Accept that and dealwith it.

“None of the changes need new technology, just a new perspective. There are really no environmental problems, just solutions waiting to be adopted.”

Westerners tend to want to know why or think in “logical” terms. “It doesn’t make sense. Why do they do that?” is a common western statement. You need to accept the “illogical” and work with it, not fight it. Patience and civility is of prime importance in Balinese society. Sometimes more important than getting things done (laughing). I’ve learned to be much more patient. You will rarely see Balinese arguing in public, yelling at their kids or having road rage. It’s tempting to yell at your neighbor for burning his trash, but it hardly ever works. Better to be polite and respectful, then bring it up.

Are the garbage scavengers we see down in south Bali helping or hindering the situation? The scavengers are really a symptom of the problem. There is no real waste management system on the island or much of Indonesia. Scavengers and ad hoc trash collectors flourish when there is no sanitation system, when chaos rules, when illegal dumping is rampant. They are not focused on cleaning up but simply collecting stuff to sell. The more dumps the better. To give you an idea of what I mean, Jakarta has an estimated 500,000 scavengers. If those scavengers were focused on cleaning up the city they would be by far the largest sanitation force in the world. Jakarta would be so clean you could eat off the sidewalks! What Bali Recycling is trying to do is to change scavengers into sanitation workers. To move from making a living by making things dirty, to making a living from making things clean.

What are a few contributions a tourist can make to help make a change? The single biggest thingto do is ask to questions. When a hotel, restaurant, travel agent or other business says they are“green”, ask them how… specifically. If they can’ttell you how much water they used last month, orhow much plastic and paper they recycled lastyear, or what makes them really “green”, then theyaren’t green. They know how many guests theyhad last month, how much they spent on food orother costs. Why is it when it comes to pollution andwaste, all of a sudden the numbers aren’t thereand it’s enough to just say “we’re green”. If theyare genuine then they can clearly show, with factswith figures. They are doing everything they can to address their impact on the planet. When you asthe tourist, the customer, asks these questions, thecompanies listen.

The second important thing to do is set an example. Simple things; don’t litter and avoid disposable plastics like drinking straws and plastic bags. Use a reusable bag or backpack instead. Tell your guide or driver it’s important to you to leave this island cleaner than when you came. It does have an effect. One of our new customers is a group of tour guides that now collect the waste from their guests as they tour the island and drop it off at our recycling facility. This happened in large part because tourists kept asking them where they could recycle their water bottle or what to do with their waste.

In the rainy season when it becomes unpleasant to swim or surf in many of Bali’s oceans, where does most of that garbage originate from? All thewaste washing up on the beaches comes from theland. Rivers unfortunately are still used as wastebins and there is still a lot of litter on the beachesof Bali that gets blown into the sea. During the dry season, the winds on the Kuta side of the island are blowing out to sea and the trash actually accumulates several miles offshore in cross ocean currents. Then, when the rainy season comes and the winds change to onshore, the trash in the ocean is blown to the beach and the rivers full of waste are flushed out into the sea and onto the beaches. Remember there is no ‘away’.

If you had a magic wand and could change one thing in your work life, what would it be? Hmmm…that’s a tough one. Maybe come back as ElonMusk (CEO and founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors)–then I’d have enough resources and connectionsto really clean things up. But probably,I would have set up Bali Recycling earlier. In the past I helped many others to set up and establish their green business only to see the focus of these companies later move away from sustainability to short-term profit. If I had been a little bit selfish and started Bali Recycling sooner, we would be much farther along and probably have a bigger impact.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle on your path? People might think that our biggest obstacleis technical or political but our obstacles are really access to financing and lack of good human resources. We have done the hard part;we’ve figured out the business model that cleans up the island. But we are competing against thetourism and property industries for attention andwe are at a big disadvantage. Unfortunately, mostbanks and investors would rather invest in anotherhotel, restaurant, spa or villa than invest in thetrash business. And its hard to attract workers whenyou’re competing against glitzy hotels and trendyrestaurants. Would you want to work in a nice hotelor in a trash recycling facility? This is a dirty job and nobody wants to do it, except crazy people like me [laughing].

Ironically, if the island continues to get more and more polluted, all these tourism-related businesses will not survive. Bali Recycling may hold the key— not just to preserving the island’s environment but its economy as well.

For more info: http://www.balirecycling.com