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More than half of Bali’s economic income comes from tourism, employing hundreds of thousands of Balinese in the industry.

Many have returned to their villages of origin. And with more people returning to villages, more garbage has accumulated. With so many people out of work, they were also hungry.

“I thought to myself, I have to do something about this,” said Made Janur Yasa, owner of a vegan restaurant in the city of Ubud.

Yasa said he wanted to find a way to help people in his community during the pandemic while tackling the lingering problem of plastic pollution.

“I got to thinking, inside the challenge, there is an opportunity,” he said.

So he started a program where local villagers could trade plastic for rice – a barter system that would benefit the environment and empower the local population. Residents can hand in the plastic waste they have collected in exchange for a staple food.

In May 2020, he organized the first exchange in the village where he was born and raised. It was a success and the concept quickly spread to other villages in Bali. His non-profit organization, Plastic Exchange, was born.

“I thought to myself that if it worked in my village, it would also work in other places,” Yasa said. “I realized this thing was getting bigger than I ever imagined.”

The program brings together local neighborhood groups called Banjars who collect plastic from their homes, streets, rivers, beaches and surrounding areas.

Villages hold monthly community exchange events where residents can bring plastic to exchange for rice. Yasa says the organization has so far helped feed thousands of families and collected nearly 500 tons of plastic for recycling.

“The teenagers come with a smile. The old people are there. The young children come with their mothers. That’s what keeps me going, to see them all excited about it,” Yasa said. “They felt helpless, and that gives them hope.”

CNN: In what ways has the pandemic impacted the livelihoods of the people of Bali?

Janur Yasa fact: When the pandemic hit, the economy came to a standstill in Bali. Many businesses have closed – restaurants, hotels, travel agencies. We are so dependent on tourism. So I see people losing their jobs. There have been massive layoffs.

When all these businesses closed and many of these workers had nothing to do, many of them returned to their villages. They returned to earth. But the people had no income. So the first thing people really need is food. I saw people in my village start to worry about how they were going to put food on the table. People were really, really in trouble, especially six months after the start of the pandemic. And that worried me.

CNN: What are the particular aspects of Balinese culture that guide your efforts?

Yasa: People come from all over the world to live here because they are drawn to the holistic way we experience life here in Bali. I was born and raised in a small village here. The good thing about Bali is that the human-to-human connection is really strong. If I have more money than I need, I can help my neighbors.

We have a lot of traditional wisdom guiding our life here. One is called tri hita karana, which represents the three paths to achieve happiness: dignity; human-to-human connection, which is considered prosperity; and the human connection with the environment.

CNN: How does your program work?

Yasa: The villagers will receive the rice according to the type of plastic they bring and the quantity they bring. Each category has a different value. We are working with a company that collects this plastic and sends it to Java for proper recycling, as we do not yet have a recycling plant in Bali. We buy rice from farmers. So we are really creating this circular economy, by supporting the farmers, and then we also clean the environment and feed the people in this community.

People have fun with it. And now, after a year (of) that, picking up plastic is sexy. It’s the cool thing to do. People are getting started. Now we are working with 200 villages. My goal is really to spread this movement.

CNN: How did some of this cultural wisdom contribute to the success of Plastic Exchange?

Yasa: The Balinese live in nature. Traditionally, we believe that nature has a soul. People care about the environment. But plastic pollution in Bali is due to lack of education and practice.

We are trying to change behavior. The only way to do this is through education. This is how we change people’s habits. My method is to show them an example by doing. We teach people how to separate the plastic. And we also educate people about the dangers of plastic. If it goes in the environment, it pollutes the water, the ocean, and it’s not good for the environment.

The people here come together in a very, very good way. So, once people are educated on how to properly dispose of plastic, they want to help and create a change.

Want to get involved? To verify the Plastic Exchange website and see how to help.
To donate to Plastic Exchange through GoFundMe, Click here.

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