After a long stint abroad working as a waiter on cruise ships, Komang Sudiarta returned to his native Bali in 2005 to find the idyllic Indonesian holiday island swamped with rubbish – endless piles of plastic bags and cigarette butts. He was furious at the sight of trash piled up in temples and blanketing beaches, his favourite haunts as a child.
Undaunted by the mammoth task at hand, Komang began attempting to clean it up. He took matters into his own hands, picking up rubbish by himself, but soon realised he was fighting a losing battle. Dumped by tourists and locals, a never-ending tide of waste appeared and reappeared every day.
Bali sees millions of tourists every year. Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar, for example, saw 6.5 million visitors in 2018 and there were many more domestic arrivals.
More Balinese had to be involved, Komang realised, but one-on-one preaching to individuals was never going to cut it. Getting the message to four million islanders, as well as the never-ending stream of visiting tourists, was a mammoth job. The only way forward was to mobilise a mass campaign.
Today, Komang's movement has become an important part of Balinese life, with thousands of people from a diverse range of backgrounds taking part over the years – from schoolchildren and teachers, to motorcycle club members and rock stars.
"I am not sitting here content and self-satisfied, but I am proud that this idea we tried to spread has now embedded itself in a new generation, particularly young people and schoolkids," Komang says. "The people and communities who have taken part in these activities have the same goal as us, which is to clean Bali up and educate more people about this issue."
As his initiative goes forward, Komang is providing theoretical and practical education on proper trash disposal, and more importantly instilling a culture of shame with regards to littering.
The movement wasn't immediately embraced. From 2005 to 2009, Komang mostly worked with a group of close friends, without publicity or support of any kind. He used the limited funds he earned working with a tour company to buy refuse bags and equipment.
Momentum picked up after Komang named the movement Malu Dong in 2009, making it easier to talk and write about, and promoting a feeling of solidarity. The name, though not literally translatable since it uses the Indonesian slang word "dong", expresses the sentiment "aren't you embarrassed?"
There are other, similar movements across Indonesia, but Komang's emotional plea in particular has resonated with people.
The 53-year-old frequently comes close to tears as he talks about how many of Bali's most beautiful spots have been swamped by rubbish. His voice rises, both in sorrow and with pride, as he describes the challenges Malu Dong has faced over the past 10 years. He takes that energy to schools and offices across Bali, and he has already given more than 3,000 lectures on the perils of littering. Intimidatingly fiery, he is undeniably convincing.
Komang's old friend Rudolf Dethu, a pop-culture figure in Bali known for his involvement in social initiatives and management of many well-known bands, admires his resolve.
"When we talk about how Malu Dong operates, we are talking about how he operates, which is 'leave the theories for later. Stop talking and roll up your sleeves immediately'," Dethu says.
"His commitment is extraordinary, to the point of almost falling into poverty. He sold his cars, he sold his houses – who knows what else – for the Malu Dong cause. He is militant."
That passion, not to say obsession, is why so many people, particularly in Bali, follow his lead. Growing up in the island's beachside districts of Kuta and Sanur, Komang grew to love the postcard scenes of serene ocean and sand, palm trees and gardens that he was surrounded by. That's why, in later years, he found the blight of ugly rubbish strewn on the sand and bobbing in the ocean deeply depressing.
"When I was younger, the oceans and areas around those parts would have some issues with trash, but it was mostly just tree branches and leaves," he recalls. "My travels abroad, mostly to Latin American countries, showed me how much concern regarding waste and trash there was, particularly because it was so intrinsically tied with those countries' tourism industry."
He compares this energy with Bali's often lacklustre official efforts, dismissing the recent decision to ban single-use plastic bags on the island as inadequate.
According to research presented at the Bali governor's office in 2019, more than 4,000 tonnes of rubbish is discarded in the island every day, or 1.5 million tonnes every year, and a substantial proportion, as much as 30 per cent by weight, ends up in the ocean.
Komang's anti-trash message has been heard by receptive ears. The Malu Dong movement is now so broad that many activities are organised without his personal involvement. Bands, such as the popular punk rock group Superman Is Dead, whose members are his old friends, often display a large Malu Dong banner at their shows and when they tour, and encourage fans to work with the band and crew members to clean up the venue after the show.
Various motorcycle clubs also run clean-ups in different parts of Bali. Malu Dong now resonates with many Balinese when they see trash piling up in public places.
Komang is now focused on spreading his message among Balinese children and teens. His disdain for the education system is palpable, and his lectures and actions at schools are legendary. These days, he can go to any school in Bali and take over the class to give a lecture and get everyone – students, teachers, administrators, principals – involved in a mass clean-up day.
"Children really should be taught to understand the discipline of proper trash disposal in a serious and consistent way. Not just in a theoretical way, but in practice," he says.
In the early days of Malu Dong, Komang encountered a range of basic problems in Balinese schools, from a lack of discipline and care, even from the teachers, to a shortage of bins and the complete lack of options for separation of recyclable items.
These days Malu Dong has the support of people who are willing to chip in to buy rubbish bins and other equipment needed by the schools. It does not get assistance from the Balinese government, says Komang, adding that the movement is even considered a nuisance that undermines government waste initiatives. Komang has nothing but contempt for local politicians.
The chief of the Balinese government's cleaning and parks department, Ketut Wisada, says Komang has helped "preserve the environment". The department's division chief, Adi Wiguna, says Malu Dong's efforts have "changed behaviour" in Bali.
"We are working with him to educate the Balinese community so that everyone is disciplined and takes care sorting and processing trash, and smoking in places that have been provided with public ashtrays – helping to encourage the community to live a clean life," Ketut says.
The claims of equal partnership bother Komang. He has seen too many incidents where officials come to Malu Dong events just for the photo ops, often even leaving before it has even finished, he says.
The movement's latest campaign is called KurangiResiko, which means "Minimise the Risk". The focus is on cigarette butts. Over the past year volunteers have placed large standing ashtrays around Bali, at beaches, parks and temples. Perhaps ironically, it began as part of a social initiative programme by the major Indonesian cigarette producer, Sampoerna.
Dethu is in charge. "My office is located near Sanur beach, and every time I go there I see cigarette butts strewn about everywhere", he says. "It is not a small number. What we have learned is that people have the tendency to hang around the beach smoking, and put out their cigarette butts in the sand."
The best approach is pragmatic and non-confrontational, says Dethu, who previously co-founded a similar programme called, "Drink Responsibly". The idea is to encourage risk reduction, rather than the harder feat of trying to get smokers to quit the habit.
"We choose to facilitate," Dethu says, adding that it was a simple message. "Go ahead and smoke, but please do so in the designated areas where the big ashtrays are located."
As for Komang, he still dreams of the Bali of his youth. "My wish is that we all become more aware and, especially, more responsible about the trash we leave behind. If we all do that, then Bali will once again be a wholesome and clean island."