WATCH: Stunning New Footage of Plastic Pollution in Indonesia (And Learn How Each of Us Can Help)

Step into the beautiful world of Komodo Island—one of the remote islands of Indonesia—where the pristine natural environment brims with life, but amidst the flora and fauna grows an invasive species: plastic pollution.

“It’s pretty jarring seeing a very beautiful fish swimming alongside a bag [made] of plastic,” says Leilani Gallardo of the Coral Triangle Center in the new video. Gallardo joined a team of artists, scientists, and filmmakers on a recent expedition from Bali to Komodo Island to document plastic pollution in the region.

The film shows plastic pollution in the open water and along shoreline, in landfills, in backyards, and in shallow waters. “I’m struck here by what we’re seeing,” says Ann Luskey, Chief Aquatic Officer for Seatime, Inc. “There wasn’t a single place we went that wasn’t filled with plastic debris.”

Another member of the expedition, Dalton Ambat, a naturalist and divemaster, has been a guide in this area for 20 years. He sees major changes with more and more plastic entering the environment. “It’s really breaking my heart because my daughter just started diving, I worry that in couple years she won’t see the things I’ve seen.”

In the Western world we say ‘just throw it away.’ There is no away. It goes somewhere, and this is where it’s going.

Pete Oxford

Student Charlotte Weir talks about filling bags with plastic garbage on the expedition and not being able to collect it all. “It made me realize: we can’t solve this problem by collecting all the plastic that’s in the oceans,” she says. “We need to stop it at the source.”

Photographer Pete Oxford, who shot beautiful images of plastic pollution underwater says it’s time for us to wake up to the problem of plastic pollution. “In the Western world we say ‘just throw it away.’ There is no away. It goes somewhere, and this is where it’s going.”

Pamela Longobardi, a professor at Georgia State University and founder of Drifters Project, says it was devastating to see plastic pollution hitting the “most beautiful spot I’ve ever seen on the planet,” but she gives a hopeful message for the future: “We’re at a point in our evolution where we’re moving into a new phase…. We have the opportunity to make changes, and even little by little and day by day these changes are going to spread like wildfire.”

The equivalent of one garbage truck of trash is dumped into our oceans every minute.  Take Action: Take the Pledge to Refuse Single-Use Plastic.

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By Pam Longobardi

A golden light matches the wonderful golden smell that envelopes the nose upon entering the Balinese taxi: it is the pungent shavings of coconut that are part of the small baskets of flowers and symbolic items laid daily as offerings of the nature-based Balinese Hinduism. This beautiful daily ritual is evidenced everywhere: on the street, on pathways, the beach, roadside altars, and even in the taxi dashboards. A place of deep spiritual connections to the natural world, Bali was the launching port of our 10-day Oceanic Society/Drifters Project/Plastic Pollution Coalition expedition from Bali to Komodo and back, and my second trip was even more magical than my first in 2014.

Our crew was a dedicated team of international experts on plastic pollution: artists, scientists, activists, world-class photographers, philanthropists, and explorers, joined by Indonesian counterparts, naturalists, and conservation specialists. Prior to our launch, we laid important groundwork in a series of meetings with local organizations from Bali and nearby islands: Bye Bye Plastic Bag BaliDiet Kantong Plastic, and the Coral Triangle Center.

To my great joy, Amir Using was once again our Indonesian naturalist and guide. As a fellow plastic pollution warrior who by chance was our guide in 2014, our meeting was the most important outcome of the first expedition. I made him an official Drifters Project member with a gift of our Plastic Free Island team shirt and 100 stainless steel straws. He told us that these things, the team shirt and the straws, were his ‘weapons against plastic.’ Over the two years since we had met, Amir had mobilized Plastic Free Indonesia to an extent that brought tears to my eyes.

Taking the logo copied from the shirt, Amir had hand-printed large reusable collection bags that he took to nearly a dozen different islands for beach cleanups. He had broadcast to his network of ham radio operators and gained their support for remote island cleanings, spoken to children’s groups about plastic pollution dangers, and marched in festival parades with volunteers picking up plastic garbage along the way. 

Amir was a force for change within Sea Safari, the expedition company he guides with. He worked with management in the adoption of new habits and ways of reducing plastic by switching from disposable plastic cups, bottles and straws to reusable metal bottles and straws. He had built an army of plastic warriors in Indonesia. When we boarded the ship, he presented us with big beautiful hand-printed cotton bags that the whole team used for underwater and coastal plastic collection!

We had our work cut out for us. Before we even made landfall on any of the remote islands we were to visit, we found ourselves in a floating maelstrom of ocean plastics: cups, food packages, straws that we snatched from the surface and dove down to collect. Getting close to the deeper corals, we noticed monofilament plastic fishing line ensnared in the corals heads which we cut loose with knives. The amount of water-borne plastic was much worse than even two years ago. Free divers Ann, Caroline, Dianna and I untangled meters and meters of line from the coral heads, while the amazing photographer of the GYRE expedition Kip Evans, did the heavy lifting shooting all the action with his 20-pound underwater rig.

Some of it was heavily encrusted with life: sponges, corals, tunicates, barnacles, crabs. Amir and I spent an hour or more carefully extracting the living creatures from their plastic snare and returned them safely to the sea.

Our first landfall with the team was the coastal village of Moyo, that had been the site of a spontaneous beach cleaning with the children of the village in 2014. I led a forensic beach cleaning, while microplastic scientist Abby Barrows of Adventure Scientists trained crew members in the protocol for water sampling for microfibers which she will study onboard with her portable lab. Surprisingly the beach was remarkably cleaner than it had been in 2014, though there were still plenty of ocean messages in the plastic we recovered. As soon as children and other villagers gathered to help us, Amir translated that since our visit two years before, the village had been doing weekly beach cleanings, and the school teacher had been educating his classes about plastic pollution. It was a most extraordinary development, and as we waited for our boat, tiny 2-, 3- and 4- year old girls helped me sift micro plastic from the sand at the dock. Their sharp eyes and tiny fingers were excellent at this task and they were excited by the game of it.

Our next major island stop was Padar, a spectacular uninhabited island formation. On landfall, we were greeted by a sparsely plasticized beach, and a carved wooden sign saying “No Litter” in Indonesian. Climbing the steep dusty trail, the island’s amazing shape is slowly revealed. I started noticing small plastic bits on the trail and began to collect them, realizing I had a whole collection of decorative elements from designer shoe soles that fell apart on the rugged trail: Nike, Crocs, Bata etc. With 35 or more by the time I reached the top, the trail became a plastic ‘walk of shame’ for all the companies that left their plastic parts in paradise. I created an impromptu collage of these red and black designer garbage – a temple of shoe shame.

From the top, I could see three distinct half-moon shaped beaches, one white, one black and one pink. We had landed on the white one, and directly opposite it, on the windward side, was the black beach being pounded by huge perfect peeling waves.  We could see signs of massive plastic inundation, so on the way back down, several of us veered off and hiked the steep path to the shore.

It was a plastic beach, just full of every sort of namable and unnamable object, much of it very old. I heard later from Amir and other crew who had been there many times that they had never looked there before, and likely the beach had never been cleaned. Abby found a nearly disintegrating plastic durian fruit with remarkable detail; Steve, a beautifully ornate picture frame of plastic mimicking carved wood; and I found numerous odd fishing floats in shapes I had never seen before. We were without water and overheated to the point of exhaustion but the beach was so raw, so despoiled and so untouched we stayed for several more hours gathering as much as we could carry away.

The spaces between islands were raucous with life. We encountered pairs of sperm whales, emitters of the loudest sound on earth, and a pod stretching to the horizon of probably thousands of small cetaceans the onboard naturalists Identified as melon-headed whales. We boarded the smaller dingies and approached them and as dolphins do, they bow-ride the pressure wave off the front of the small craft, surfacing and jumping in unison, playing in the wake.

Another day we snorkeled in an area that was having a major planktonic event. The water was thick with iridescent flashing darting forms at the surface while the bottom had enormous rafts of sea urchins clustered in mating that were releasing millions of small brick red eggs that attracted huge schools of fish swirling in bait balls and scores of manta rays gliding through the soup of food. This was a pristine day of almost no plastic encounters – a true paradise.

Our final days were full of interesting encounters from the ocean – in the form of messages in plastic. This is the part of my practice that feels the most connected to the larger network of life-force, and when others experience it, I see their thrill and feel the same amazement I feel every time it happens to me, even after 10 years.  I talk about the ocean communicating with us through the material of our own making, the plastic. As the team had been actively collecting for over a week, they were finely tuned to plastic awareness. Caroline found the first symbol, a beautiful translucent turquoise water faucet, of particular meaning to her: she has just started a water protection foundation. Artist and musician Alvaro Soler Arpa found his message: a big plastic decal that said ‘Studio Music.’ Wayne, who makes much of his magic at Oceanic happen through countless hours on phone conferences: a cell phone cover. Lisa and Jean found an amazing readymade installation- an ancient Ultraman arm sticking out of the sand, ‘drowning in plastic.’ And Ann, deep diving breath-hold diver, found a spectacular plastic chicken meters under the sea in perfect shape: it was a children’s piggy bank.

Much of the plastic that we recovered was transported back to Lombok and will be donated to a most fantastic social enterprise group called the Bank Sampah NTB Mandiri or “Garbage Bank”. Brainchild of Aisyah Odist, this enterprise actually pays individuals rupiah for the collection and cleaning of plastic trash, like the ubiquitous food packages everywhere in Indonesia. More ambitious individuals can also cut and fold the plastic into interlocking links that create beautiful handbags, wallets, purses and other finely crafted items that are for sale in their boutique. Additionally, they compost organic matter into fine planting soil and make inventive planters for sprouts and seedlings. The level of skill and organization was truly impressive, and the output of stunning products of Bank Sampah make this a model organization of upscaling and creative reuse. Many of us bought beautiful works to gift to others.

Our first seeds planted two years ago have taken root and flourished in ways beyond my wildest expectations. We are now joined to a network of plastic-fighting warriors with firm traction in place because of dedicated individuals and organizations from the Coral Triangle Center ambitious and far-reaching goals to the super kids of Bye Bye Plastic Bag Bali to Amir’s tireless efforts on island after island. It is a moment of great joy and celebration that we end our expedition on…. only to come back to learn that our election has taken a most disastrous turn. What will this mean for our collective future? For me, it galvanizes my commitment to fight for the beauty and infinite creativity of nature. We are an army, we are growing, and we have only just begun. But we are racing against time.

Pam Longobardi is the founder of Drifter’s Project. She is a notable member of Plastic Pollution Coalition, and the Oceanic Society’s Artist-In-Nature. This piece originally appeared here.

Three years ago Christine Parfitt, a marine biologist from Western Australia, was volunteering at a turtle conservation project in West Bali, Indonesia. Parfitt was on a year long volunteer assignment when she met an incredibly passionate teacher with a deep love for the environment. 

Pak Yasa is a junior high school teacher who leads students on camping trips, bird watching activities, and turtle egg conservation. While joining Pak Yasa and his students, Parfitt noticed that these passionate students would clean up a beach and then drink from single-use plastic cups. She realised that there was a gap in education on single-use plastic waste. Together with Pak Yasa she set about creating an Environmental Education Program that would lead generational change away from single-use plastics. 

Today, more than 3,045 students and teachers have completed the program, each receiving a stainless steel bottle that they can now refill at school. The bottles are all designed by students in an annual competition which gives the students ownership and a sense of pride for their bottles. For each bottle that is purchased, the cost of a bottle donation and education materials to a student in Bali is covered. Each school participating in the program also receives a water stand so that the canteen can sell water refills to students instead of water in plastic packaging.

To date more than 100,000 plastic cups have been prevented from entering waste streams through the students dedicated use of their bottles. The program recently expanded, launching at four new schools in Nusa Lembongan. In 2017, more than 2,000 students and teachers are due to participate in the program and receive their bottles. 

You can help continue this program by donating here or buying a bottle. 

By Emily DiFrisco

Earlier last month, scientists, artists, and leaders embarked on a 10-day boat expedition from Bali to Komodo, Indonesia, to document plastic pollution. Throughout the trip, the group encountered plastic garbage in the ocean–both on the surface and on the ocean floor––invading animal habitats and littering the most remote of beaches.

“On this expedition we saw first hand that plastic has reached the far corners of the Earth,” said Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition. “We saw coral entangled in plastic, single-use plastic cups and straws on beaches, and monkeys playing with discarded plastic food wrappers and bottle caps.”

The Coral Triangle is known for its vivid natural beauty, but in recent years, plastic pollution has become an increasing invasive species throughout the area. “There was not one beach or reef we snorkeled at in the 10 days we were there, no matter how remote, that was not impacted by plastic trash,” said Wayne Sentman, a leader on the expedition and Oceanic Society’s director of conservation travel programs.

There was not one beach or reef we snorkeled at in the 10 days we were there, no matter how remote, that was not impacted by plastic trash.

Wayne Sentman

A crucial component of the trip, a collaborative effort of Oceanic Society, Drifters Project and Plastic Pollution Coalition was connecting with local partners working to address and eradicate plastic pollution throughout Indonesia. The group met with organizations Bye Bye Plastic Bags, Plastic Diet Kantong, and Coral Triangle Center, in addition to local partners Olivier Pouillon, a waste reduction expert from Bali Recycles, and Amiruddin Using, a local naturalist and the founder and coordinator of PPC and Drifter’s Project’s “Plastic Free Island – Bali.”

These organizations raise awareness and educate the community about plastic pollution reduction in Bali and throughout Indonesia. Pouillon works directly with waste collectors in Bali to improve waste management systems and has started a trash tech startup called that helps Indonesian cities clean up plastic pollution. Bye Bye Plastic Bags is a social initiative started by two sisters in Bali. In just three years, the youth-led initiative has grown to 30 student volunteers and has pushed leadership in Bali to eliminate single-use plastic bags by Jan. 2018.

Local naturalist Amiruddin Using has implemented plastic reduction ideas and cleanups on islands throughout Indonesia. “Amir took the Plastic Free Island idea and single-handedly implemented it in Indonesia,” said Pam Longobardi, Oceanic Society’s artist-in-nature, who first met with Using on the same expedition two years ago.

“Previously, my habit was just picking up plastic waste that I found on the shore and in the ocean,” explained Using, who in the few years has increased the scope of his work to helping local people and businesses reduce their use of plastics.

“Reducing disposable plastic in the tourism industry is very important for the sustainability of the industry,” said Using. “I start by replacing plastic straws with reusable stainless steel straws. I explain to the public that plastic pollution is very dangerous to our health, then I invite them to work together to save our beautiful Earth from the pollution of plastic waste. I do this every opportunity that I get.”

Using brought members of the expedition reusable cotton bags, printed with “Plastic Free Island” to collect plastic garbage along the way.

Leilani Gallardo, who joined the expedition as a representative of Coral Triangle Center, a conservation organization that promotes marine biodiversity, spoke to the beauty along the journey: “we were swimming above a dozen manta rays, cruising alongside a pack of melon headed whales, and paddling next to sea turtles.”

There was coral growing over the monofilament with living creatures on it. We removed more than 50 feet of fishing line and saved the coral.

Pam Longobardi

And amidst the colors and corals was plastic garbage. “On land, we saw so much plastic food packaging from junk food,” recalled Longobardi. “Underwater we saw many places where fishing line was tangled in coral. There was coral growing over the monofilament with living creatures on it. We removed more than 50 feet of fishing line and saved the coral.”

On Komodo Island, the only place in the world home to the Komodo dragon, the group again saw plastic caps and pieces on the breaches and in a dragon’s regurgitated “bolus.” On the island of Lombok, Cohen photographed monkeys playing with plastic. “There were vendors selling peanuts, and people would buy them for the monkeys and dump the package on the ground, polluting the natural environment and attracting the monkeys to chew the plastic.”

On the water, Cohen saw that “floating plastic becomes a vector for invasive species. Animals such as hermit crabs end up using yogurt containers or plastic bottle caps as a home.”

The most common types of plastic the group found were thin plastic disposable cups and straws (many discarded from cruise ships) and single-use packets of personal care items like lotion and shampoo. On one island, locals had devised a recycling program for these packets called Plastic Sampang (Plastic Bank), where women would weave the plastic wrappers into upcycled purses and bags.

At one point on the water, a giant grouper fish came to the surface near the boat with its swim bladder exploded. The fish, likely over 50 years old, typically resides in deep waters. After putting the fish out of its misery, members of the expedition prepared and ate the fish for dinner. In the stomach of the fish? An old hook, a new hook, and plastic fishing line.

Sentman, who has worked in the marine environment for 25 years, notices a shift in worldwide consumer habits based on the types of the plastic he finds. “In the 90s I saw mostly plastic lighters and roll on deodorant balls. In the 2000s I started to see increasing plastic bottles and printer ink cartridges. Now in the 2010s I am starting to find plastic trash like cell phone cases that speak to a ‘new’ type of plastic pollution we are creating. Like all the others before, it still ultimately finds its way into the ocean and does not disappear.”

“All the plastic items each of us found were messages from the ocean,” said Longobardi of the journey. “And the ocean is so clearly saying: help.”

This is Part 2 of a series. Read Part 1 here. 

Learn more about Plastic Free Islands.