First published on Global Hobo

I notice the wildlife before the people. Between the hoards of holy cows and scavengers of the sky, there’s fierce competition for edible waste. I’m ankle deep in rubbish before I notice nimble fingers combing through the rubbish.

This is Suwung, the largest official landfill site in Bali—a 44-hectare cleared plot of land. Once a mangrove wetland, it’s now—and for as long as it takes for these plastics to decompose—a barren, man-made mountain of dull colours. This is the site of a visible and odorous struggle: the burden of almost all of southern Bali’s trash.

I tread carefully, having just seen (and chuckled) as my friend and translator, Aryo, stepped in a hidden pocket of runny cow shit. I am moving through mie goreng packets, neglected footwear and meal trays in the hundreds and thousands. But there’s one item that reaches the million mark easily, an item with two handles for convenience: the plastic bag.

The ground slopes upward; I slip and slide my way to the top of the mound. Here, I find what I am searching for—the people; the pemulungs (scavengers) and pengepul (scrap and rubbish collectors) who make up Bali’s unofficial recycling system.

The hum of the bulldozers and the claw of the excavator sweeping down between the scurrying people reminds me of a beehive. I’m not sure if they’re all working together for the greater good or if it’s every man and woman for themselves.

An old man sifting through plastic almost gets flattened by a bulldozer, its cabin cloudy with cigarette smoke as it tears its way across the trash. Shouts from fellow scavengers save him from the oncoming vehicle before it collects the pile he was rummaging through. Seemingly unperturbed, he zeroes back in for a moment, sweeping another pile before a reversing dump truck collides with his left-back side. He scurries out of the way, in my direction, to the safety of the people seated and sorting.

The only “solid” structure in this barren land is a wooden shack with snacks hanging from the ceiling. People are huddled beneath it seeking solace from the sun. Workers are squatted on either side of it, around tarps covered with food scraps. Equipped with knives, they pluck the larger chunks of fruit and veg, slice them and toss the cast-offs? back into the pile.

Aryo engages one of the knife-wielders. I linger awkwardly by his side, smiling at the squatting man, the sun beating down on my back as he intermittently squints up at us in conversation. My head is swimming with questions, none of the ones I prepared. I gently nudge Aryo.

“What is he going to do with this?”

“It’s for his pigs,” Aryo translates while the man continues to cut the semi rotten fruit and vegetables. It seems quite considerate, trimming the pieces for the animals’ consumption.

I leave them in conversation and follow the trucks along the highway of rubbish. I notice the ground expanding and contracting as the tyres roll over, like a stiff sponge.

The people sit and sort. Only the trucks tilting their trays cause them to stir. A delivery of tyres pulls a crowd. I learn that this is because rubber fetches double the price of plastic, roughly RP1000 (AUD 10 cents) per kilo. In a frenzied attempt to fill their cane baskets, they tear apart the fresh delivery for valuable items. It’s like watching a pack of seagulls surround a kid with hot chips.

Each person is wielding a long piece of metal, hooked at the end: efficiently designed to perforate pieces of rubbish and then deposit them into the cane baskets. They wear bamboo hats and their necks are adorned with cloth. Their faces and hands are the only skin that is visible.

The rubber is deposited in large white bags which are then lined up like soldiers on the edge of the mound. A man half my width pulls one of the bags onto his head. There’s a gentle smile on his lips as he digs his thumbnails in between the weaves on either side of the bag, readying himself for the descent back to his motorbike. He disappears beyond the garbage mountain.

Aryo taps my shoulder and pulls me from my pondering. The pig farmer has invited us to visit his sties on the fringe of the dump. It’s a bouncy three-minute ride along a dirt road to the little community. The locals gaze at us as we go past. The pig farmer’s name is Nyoman; he unloads his large bag of rancid fruit and vegetables against a low concrete wall.

I can hear snuffles and squeals pouring over the wall, but I’m slowed by the smell.

I remind myself to keep composure, to take another step. I don’t want to offend Nyoman, who seems quite proud of his pigs.

Flies spill out from a suspicious blue tub a few centimeters from my shins and I see the sties. The pigs are letting out high-pitch cries at the prospect of being fed.

The minutes draw out and Aryo provides snippets of information.

“Pig meat has dropped a dollar in the last year.”

“Nyoman has been doing this for 10 years.”

“He will boil the scavenged meat now.”

Nyoman unlaces a smaller bag—the main culprit of the stench. Emptying its contents into a metal container and sliding his hands through the pink and white meat, he breaks open plastic bags, exposing everything from duck heads to intestines. I imagine the pigs crunching down on the beaks.

My stomach churns and, judging by the look on his face Aryo’s is churning too.

Balancing the meat bucket on some rocks, Nyoman grabs some chunks of white Styrofoam, sets them alight and places them between the rocks. It crackles, beginning to boil the cauldron of blood, guts and beaks to feed to the pigs.

It seems about time to leave. He says he will spend the afternoon tending to his pigs, then will return home to his wife and four-year-old daughter.

We leave him with a pile of fruit and RP100 000 (AUS $10) for his time. He smiles, not to us, but to his friends who have gathered.

Back at the tip, there’s a long line of garbage trucks, exhausts spluttering, loads overflowing, waiting their turn to get to the top and add to this insatiable mound.

I’m totally surprised to see everyone eating ice cream.

A middle age women sucking on a chocolate Paddle-Pop gestures across the highway to three excited women—their feet surrounded by a galaxy of colour. The pile is made up of Rocket Twirls, almond Magnums and Cornettos, amongst other varieties. I can’t believe my eyes. It’s every kid’s fantasy. Enormous piles of ice cream, all still within their use-by dates, frozen and free. The sun is taking its toll, so it’s a race against time. 

Taking the first bite of icy rainbow goodness, I am in disbelief. I’m perplexed that in a country where so many have so little, waste on such a scale still goes on. Earlier I had been delighted to not see any children working the dump, just a few sitting in the shade. Now I wish there were more children here.

Some of the workers are filling their hats and plastic bags with ice cream but there aren’t any freezers in the village. Most relish the moment and binge on ice cream there and then. People are grinning from ear-to-ear, me included. I’d brought a bag of fruit to offer the workers but no one seems to want it now.

Polishing off my third ice cream, I do something I’d never do anywhere else. I drop my paddle-pop stick to the ground and let my Magnum wrapper settle with the rest of the plastic. That’s when the guilt sets in. It strikes me that every piece of plastic ever produced is still on this planet in one form or another, and these Magnum wrappers will still be here, long after we’re all dead.