Rubbish, Recycling and Religion: Indonesia’s Plastic Waste Crisis and the Case of Rumah Kompos in Ubud, Bali

  • Michael S. Northcoot Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Keywords: religion, recycling, waste, management, community


Indonesia is the second largest global source of marine plastic after China. Plastic waste, together with toxic smoke from extensive unregulated rubbish burning in homes and businesses, are grave public health threats in Indonesia. This paper presents a case study in Ubud, Bali of a community-based recycling and waste sorting project - Rumah Kompos –which demonstrates the potential of religious wisdom and belief to contribute to help solve Indonesia’s waste problem. The cultural role of religions in the case study is part of a larger Indonesian, and world religions, phenomenon in which churches, mosques and temples, and faith-based schools (and in Indonesia Islamic boarding schools or pesantren) have made efforts to sponsor pro-environmental behaviours at local community level. The paper also recalls the relevance of anthropological studies of religion, especially Mary Douglas’ classic study Purity and Danger, in understanding the connected genealogies of waste and religion. Douglas theorises that identification and regulation of hazardous and ‘polluting’ practices, concerning bodily fluids, food, clothing, housing, habitable land, potable water and sexual relationships was central to the social role of traditional religions. The disturbance to this long-established function of religion occasioned by the speed and scale of adoption of modern technological innovations, and of a modern ‘consumer lifestyle’, points to an under-studied dialectic between religion and waste which, in a nation as religiously active as Indonesia, ought to be included in both the conceptualisation of, and policy-making concerning, plastic and waste management.


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[13] Janbeck et al, ‘Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.’ But as already indicated temperate nations industrialised first, and had more waste infrastructure before the plastics revolution, so there is need for further investigation of this question.
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[15] The ‘core-periphery’ description of post-colonial development was first presented in Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America. New York, Monthly Review Press, 1967; Frank, with Immanuel Wallerstein, then developed ‘World System Theory’: it attracts criticism, particularly from Northern hemisphere economists and social scientists, but it is still evident in the ongoing extraction of natural resource wealth, and flows of funds, from formerly colonised to former colonising nations in the world economy at the present time: see further Andre Gunder Frank, ‘A theoretical introduction to 5,000 years of World System History.’ Review XIII (1990), 155 – 248. Indonesia’s post-independence President Sukarno was a prominent critic of the post-colonial development model and under Sukarno Indonesia developed barriers to external wealth extraction, including a ban on ownership of land and licensed road vehicles by non-Indonesians, which remains in place. But the core-periphery model has relevance to the problem of waste management and other environmental costs of an extractive economic model not so much externally but internally in post-colonial Indonesia.
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[26] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London, Routledge, 1966 and Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999: see also Jonathan Klawans, ‘Review essay: rethinking Leviticus and rereading Purity and Danger.’ Association for Jewish Studies Review, 27, 2003, 89-102.
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[28] Bruce and Storey, ‘Networks of Waste’ and MacRae, ‘Solid waste management in tropical Asia.’
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[30] Bali is a patrilineal society in which the norm is for a household not to be headed by a man: single, divorced or widowed women are customarily expected to reside in the compound of their parents. Traditional Balinese homes consist of a compound with a number of small dwellings rather than one house with multiple rooms. Households headed by women, and multi-roomed dwellings, are now becoming more common, in part because of a considerable influx of foreign residents and the emergence of tourist-related businesses in which women as well as men take leadership roles: see further Frederik Barth, Balinese Worlds Chiacgo, University of Chicago Press, 1993, 36-8 .
[31] Public violence is contrary to the behavioural norms of Balinese religious culture but when expressed it is more likely to be seen as legitimate when initiated by a party who believes they have been wronged: see further L. E. A. Howe, ‘Gods, peoples, spirits and witches: the Balinese system of person definition,’ Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde Deel 140, 2/3sw Afl. (1984), 193 – 222.
[32] Supardi Asmorobangun, interview with Michael Northcott, Rumah Kompos, Monkey Forest Sanctuary Car Park, Ubud, 20 October, 2019.
[33] For a contemporary survey of the extent and social significance of religiosity in Indonesia see further Bernie T. Adeney-Risakotta, Living in a Sacred Cosmos: Indonesia and the Future of Islam, New Haven, CT, Yale Southeast Asian Studies, 2018 and Robert W. Hefner, ‘The religious field: plural legacies and contemporary contestations’ in Robert W. Hefner (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Indonesia, London and New York, 2018, 211-225.
[34] On research on religious communities and recycling beyond Indonesia see Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad, Noshahzila Idris, Azizan Baharuddin, Amran Muhammad, Nik Meriam Nik Sulaiman, ‘The role of religious community in recycling: empirical insights from Malaysia.’ Resources, Conservation and Recycling 58 (2012), 143-151; and Jeremy Kidwell, Franklin Ginn, Michael Northcott, Elizabeth Bomberg, Alice Hague, ‘Christian climate care: slow change, modesty and eco-theo-citizenship’ Geo 5 (2018), e00059.
[35] Research for this paper was supported by the Ford Foundation (Indonesia), Grant title: ‘Co-designing Sustainable, Just and Smart Urban Living,’ awarded to the Indonesian Consortium of Religious Studies, Universitas Gadja Madah, from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2020.
How to Cite
Northcoot, M. (2020). Rubbish, Recycling and Religion: Indonesia’s Plastic Waste Crisis and the Case of Rumah Kompos in Ubud, Bali. International Journal of Interreligious and Intercultural Studies, 3(1), 1-19.