A Firsthand Account of Indonesian Plastic Pollution

Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventure Scientists bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. Adventure Scientists Marketing Manager Victoria Ortiz interviewed their Microplastics Principal Investigator Abby Barrows about her voyage from Bali to Komodo on an Oceanic Society Expedition to explore the impact of plastic pollution in that region.

By Victoria Ortiz and Abby Barrows

The Oceanic Society Expedition recently spent 10 days traveling by boat from Bali to Komodo to explore the impact of plastic pollution in this region. They invited Adventure Scientist’s Microplastics Researcher and College of the Atlantic Master’s student Abby Barrows to join a curated group of activists, artists, NGO directors, philanthropists and media from around the world to witness and document the extent of plastic pollution firsthand.

Abby at Bonto Village, Photo by Dianna Cohen

“I’m acutely aware of the plastic problem from a scientific standpoint,” says Abby. “But it’s different when you see gorgeous beaches filled with candy wrappers or plastic bottles, and realize that we haven’t seen a village in two days.”

Over eight million metric tons of plastic make their way into our oceans every year. Indonesia is the second largest offender on this list, and was an obvious choice for Oceanic SocietyDrifters Project, and Plastic Pollution Coalition to focus on for a trip.
Abby analyzes thousands of water samples sent from our volunteer adventurers from around the world in her lab in Maine. Our Global Microplastics Initiative maps and analyzes the spread and proliferation of plastic particles smaller than five mm that likely pose a massive environmental and human health risk when they enter our waterways.
Air tanks and bags of trash. Photo by Abby Barrows

“There’s a certain amount of disconnect examining these samples from my lab in Maine,” said Abby. “Pulling out bags of trash every time we went snorkeling reconnected me with the depth of the problem and adds extra impetus to get this data before policy makers and businesses immediately.”

Abby and the team walked on “feet and feet of compressed trash” being illegally dumped on unmonitored protected land that is filling in the mangroves in Bali. Communities of people subsist on this “new land,” which will eventually developed for tourism infrastructure.

“The hardest part to swallow is that these large pieces of plastic are soon going to be microplastics, and once that happens it’s hard to fathom how to get them out of our water systems.”

Illegal Balinese Trash Dump
Illegal Balinese Trash Dump. Photo by Abby Barrows

One of the trip leaders was a local Indonesian man who had gone on past Oceanic Society trips and become an advocate within his community. Amiruddin Using lobbied for all chartered boats in the area to stop using single use plastic and to provide re-usable metal water bottles for the guests.

“Amir was so grateful that we were there. He showed me that this is not just a situation of outsiders coming in and saying it’s a problem. We need to arm individuals with the education and resources they need to drive change at a local level.”

Expedition crew
Sea Safari VII crew and passengers. Photo courtesy Abby Barrows

The recent success of statewide plastic bag bans and regularly organized beach cleanups show the world that there is already grassroots support to reduce plastic consumption.

“Change needs to come from many different levels. The easiest change to implement immediately is your personal choices.”

The Oceanic Society Expedition will be releasing a resolution and a few short films to showcase the beauty and trash of their experience soon.

Find out more about our Global Microplastics Project and other Adventure Scientists projects by visiting our website, the Landmark Notes blog and by following us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at adventurescientists.org/field-notes. Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.