cleaning beaches

What I Learned from 31 Days of Cleaning Beaches

I (Emma) travelled around Bali in December 2019 on the Bali Plastic Tour cleaning beaches every day and inviting people to join me. It was an incredible experience and I am so grateful for all the help from strangers and friends along the way. Some things went better than expected, some things didn’t go as planned but most importantly I learnt more in that month than I could have possibly imagined. I already knew a lot about Bali’s waste crisis but this month really opened my eyes.

I wrote up my week 1 insights here, but sadly didn’t keep it up week by week! So I want to share some of my biggest trash insights from the whole month.

cleaning beaches in Canggu
Day 1 – Canggu


Northern Bali has a much bigger trash issue than southern Bali

I live in Canggu and I thought that the trash issue there was monumental. Everything is relative. Once I started my journey north on the Bali Plastic Tour and got out of Badung Regency and started cleaning beaches there it got worse and worse. Collection of people’s waste gradually disappeared into nothing, it became the norm to see trash lining the streets and burning piles of rubbish on every street corner and on the beaches. Being in the north suddenly I was grateful for Canggu and the infrastructure we have there. People in the north generally didn’t care about the pollution, many didn’t even know where a landfill was and plastic was almost viewed the same as autumn leaf litter – natural and accepted. There is still a lot of work to do in the south but a big focus needs to be replicating the systems working in the south in the northern areas of Bali.

River in north east Bali


There is no Bali map of landfills or recycling centers in existence

One of the biggest challenges in preparation of the Bali Plastic Tour was how we were going to dispose of the trash. Cleaning beaches was the easy bit! In Canggu, we are lucky to have Eco Bali recycling center who we pay to collect and dispose of the waste, recycling what they can. However as soon as we move out of their area it becomes really difficult to find options. No one had a map or a list of the landfills or recycling centers in Bali. It does not exist!

So we set off knowing of Eco Bali and Peduli Alam (in Amed) and not much else. Some places we found couldn’t accept our trash because they were already over capacity. We had a budget to include renting trucks to deliver trash long distances if that was necessary. Luckily in each location we managed to meet people who helped us. Businesses took our trash, we hired a truck on only one occasion, we used Eco Bali multiple times and Peduli Alam in Amed. We did not manage to recycle in every spot but we chose the best option we could.

peduli alam
Peduli Alam shop with upcycled products


Landfills are better than nothing, but really they are not great

What is a landfill? In Bali we ask where is the ‘tempat sampah’ which translates to ‘rubbish place’. It can be just a tiny piece of land right next to the sea where people dump it. A lot blows into the surrounding environment, some is picked up to be recycled and the rest is burned which releases toxic fumes. The number one focus needs to be less plastic waste being produced. No matter the landfill (and there aren’t many to choose from!) it is not a great solution.

bali landfill
landfill in northern Bali next to the mangroves


Plastic smoke is extremely toxic

In the north pretty much all landfills burn the waste. However, it is still better to burn waste in a landfill away from residential areas than on a busy street. The smoke from burning plastic is extremely toxic. You only have to breathe it in a few times to know it. Bleurgh. Horrible stuff! It causes respiratory diseases, causes cancer and especially bad for pregnant mothers and children. On Nusa Lembongan a local woman thanked me for cleaning beaches there emotionally saying that her baby would cry at night because of the thick plastic smoke. Locals without waste collection have a difficult choice to make – burn it, throw it into the environment or find a landfill yourself and deliver it.

burning plastic
Burning plastic in Padang Bai


Trash needs value

Luckily across most of Bali trash pickers get money for some plastics – plastic bottles, glass bottles and aluminium cans mainly. This incentive prevents a large amount of plastics from being burnt or ending up in our oceans. It was really common to clean a beach like Balian and only pick up 2 or 3 bottles but still fill two bags of other non valuable plastic. In contrast, on Nusa Lembongan although the have a recycling center they don’t pay people to bring them recyclables and there were bottles everywhere! The trash pickers have such an important job. What if we can make other plastics valuable too? Can we find an industrial use for old flip flops so we can pay for them to be collected? Can we find a use for thin plastics like wrappers (which aren’t recyclable)? I hope so.

flip flops on beach
Flip flops from Balian


Locals need cheap alternatives to single use plastic

It is all well and good to say “you need to use less plastic” without giving an option. I do not blame the local people. I believe that most people are good at heart. Part of the problem is education, culture and also money. It is easy as a westerner to say “don’t use a plastic bottle” when we can afford to buy a reusable bottle for $20. The minimum wage in Bali is $140 a month. That needs to cover feeding a family, rent and the rest goes to ceremonies – an integral (and expensive) part of life here.

One of the most common things I picked up were sachets. In Asia you can buy sachets of coffee, shampoo, detergent etc. so you don’t have to pay for a whole bottle in one go. These sachets are not recyclable but affordable on a day-to-day basis. What is the solution? I’m not sure yet.


If you think cleaning beaches is pointless that’s ok, but please think before you speak

Cleaning beaches every day is mentally tiring. Every time I see a dirty beach it hurts me. I feel sad, disappointed in people and a little hopeless at times. What really doesn’t help is to come over and tell me that what I am doing is 1) bad or 2) pointless. I know that is not the case. I know that what Ocean Mimic has achieved is only good and although the impact is small in the grand scheme of things it is still something. Not to mention this is just the beginning and we are constantly striving for better ways of doing things.

There are always challenges to be faced and we cannot face them by believing there is no hope and nothing we can do. If you don’t believe in beach cleanups don’t come to them just to tell me so instead come to me with some other ideas and a bit of optimism. Ocean Mimic isn’t just about cleaning beaches, it is one good tool for raising awareness. (Just had to get that one off my chest!)

emma sparrow ocean mimic
Emma on the Ocean Mimic bike!


Monsoon season isn’t predictable

Monsoon season never really came. We had a few days of rain but not much. No one saw the devastation I wanted them to see. We didn’t pick up anywhere close to what we expected to. That’s ok. That’s nature for you! I just cannot stress enough – it gets so much worse! We picked up 640 kilos in Canggu in one hour last December!

monsoon season bali
Approaching rain in Candidasa


To sum up!

It was a great experience and gave me time to think about other ways to try solve this problem. Luckily we didn’t spend as much as we expected so the money has gone into our charity for some amazing projects this year. I want to finish by saying a massive thank you to a bunch of people.

First of all everyone who joined the tour, everyone who donated and everyone who shared the project. You made a difference!

The hardcore volunteers who joined me:

Sarah, Starlette, Dave, Arianna, Dave & Anna, Andy, Karin, Marc, Gama

ocean mimic volunteers cleaning beaches
Starlette, Anna & Dave

cleaning beaches in the rain

Break from the rain – Sarah and Dave

Volunteers who helped prepare:

Anna, Charlotte, Catherine, Mel, Katherine




  • Trash Hero Pemuteran
  • Peduli Alam
  • Trash Hero Amed
  • Old Mans – host our weekly cleanup every Saturday 3pm event HERE
  • Friends of Menjangan
  • Bluehill Dive Resort
  • Apneista
  • Trash Hero Candidasa
  • Sunrise School
  • Trash Hero Ceningan
  • NGS Crypto
  • Dreamland Beach Warung
  • Rafa
  • Hardrock Cafe
  • The Shack
  • Micky’s Mad House
  • Solace Float
  • Yudhi Surf Instructor
  • Cocomo
  • Kora from CIBU
  • Avocado Factory
  • BB52 Burgers
  • Hippiefish Bali

Big donators:

  • Sholah Shoya – ran a crowdfunding campaign on our behalf!
  • Andy Young
  • Toby Sparrow
  • Saski Collection
  • Antonio Vargas Tabarini
  • Amy Bacon
  • Dan Quinn
  • Graham Wooley
  • Audrey Sequier
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