1 Introduction

Plastic bags make up 9.4% of the world’s coastal litter. More than a million birds, marine mammals and turtles die from ingesting plastics each year (Jeftic et al. 2009). Indonesia is the second largest source of plastic marine pollution (Jambeck et al. 2015). There is a growing number of studies suggesting that plastic particles taken up by marine life (Desforges et al. 2015) causes adverse health effects in a number of creatures ranging from nano-organisms to whales to human beings (cf. Andrady 2011; Thompson et al. 2009). Most of the Balinese people that have contributed to this research have little knowledge of this. Their understanding of nature and potential damage to it is largely based on concepts and perceptions that are different. The variety and differences are examined in this study.

The approach of the study at hand is similar to other studies contributing to the growing field of environmental anthropology. Sponsel (2007) notes how these studies extend the former focus of ecological anthropology from local to now global considerations. Whether identity related factors for example in connection to the increasing role of transnational media or migration, or whether aspects of natural phenomena, such as climate change, the relation of humans with their natural environment can better be understood by looking beyond a narrow local and a more holistic approach. The pollution of the seas by plastic bags is a phenomenon that cannot be understood without its local and global dimensions. The fact that Balinese use plastic bags is a direct result from its global connectedness. Whether the use, disposal and pollution by plastic bags are perceived as a problem depends on local and global discourses and the identities and the interpretation of their specific components.

The two authors of this study are deeply rooted in Western culture. We can be described as being WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic) (Henrich et al. 2010), from a global perspective. Similar to us, we would claim that many Westerners going to Bali would perceive according to their perspective the “plastic problem” of Bali being all too apparent. From our perspective plastic is at the wrong place (Douglas 2003). There seem to exist clearly distinguishable cultural and behavioural characteristics and understandings of people geographically misleading described as coming from the ‘West’ in comparison to ‘Non-Western’ people (Henrich 2020). However, obviously there is the strong danger of oversimplification (cf. Dove et al. 2003) and there is a huge diversity among them. This diversity is even more pronounced, when looking at ‘Non-Western’ perspectives, as cultural diversity is much more abundant and less aligned. Aiming to understand what we perceive as the plastic problem of Bali, we believe it is useful to examine the so called ‘Western’ and “the” ‘Balinese’ concept of nature to better appreciate an important difference in understanding the natural environment. According to Hviding the ‘Western’ concept sees nature as the antithesis of culture, nature vs. man, the material as opposed to spiritual (cf. Hviding 2003). Nature in the ‘West’ is hence largely understood as an autonomous category with its own set of rules. This is set in contrast to the ‘Non-Western’ conceptualizations of the environment in which culture and nature are not separate units. Bruun and Kalland (1995) describe a moral unity of human and nature referring to Asia as a whole. The anthropomorphisation of natural objects and phenomena – the attribution of human characteristics to the latter – we often found among Balinese people is an expression of this idea. Nature becomes more understandable, accessible and manageable. Many rituals and offerings can be seen as such interactions with the aim to influence proceedings in the environmental realm. In this study we will learn how the anthropomorphisation and interconnectedness of nature with other spheres in life, such as religion, helps us to understand the meaning and perceptions of nature as it presents itself to many Balinese.

These Balinese perspectives, meaning and perceptions are due to globalisation more and more interacting with Western, exported patterns of production and consumption and the corresponding concepts of nature. A central aspect in ‘Western’ separation of human and environment is the elevation of humans to control and manipulate the environment. It is often that this kind of manipulation has led to environmental destruction. For example, Ramseyer et al. (2001) perceive that the rise of materialism and consumerism induced from Western into Balinese culture serves as a vehicle for attitudes favouring exploitive behaviour. Materialistic and consumptive values are increasing all over Indonesia (see e.g. Gerke 2000; Spranz et al. 2012). Further, they play an important role in the constitution of people’s social status and identity (see e.g. Douglas 1976, 1997; Jackson 2005). On the other hand, Western concepts of caring and conserving of nature are exported and interacting with Balinese or other concepts in the region ever more often (Pauwelussen et al. 2017). Due to an important political debate on plastic bag use on Bali, going on while fieldwork was done, we decided to try to understand factors that influence shopping bag choice.

2 Methods

We selected Bali as a case study, because as a well-established, fast growing, and substantial tourism hub in South East Asia it is producing a lot of plastic waste. It is a very religious place, with high respect in God’s Creation and nature. It went through a rapid transformation, challenging many values, norms and institutions in more general that require to be adapted to the new ways of living. This happened under the condition of a state with limited governability. Roger, Spranz, the first author, has collected the data for this study in between 2013 and 2016 during which he spent most of his time on Bali conducting different research projects. Data was collected using a variety of research methods ranging from qualitative interviews to quantitative surveys. The research consisted of expert interviews, semi-structured interviews, group discussions and informal talks with more than 80 informants. Participant observation was a big part in the research as well. From grocery shopping with and without plastic bags and different everyday life situations that involve interaction with the environment, waste, especially plastic bag waste, he has been able to further approach an emic perspective. He also participated at community gatherings and meetings of local initiatives concerned with reducing plastic bag waste. With the help of research assistants, we have been able to conduct surveys with another 60 informants, all of which were owners of little grocery shops.

The data has been analysed using an inductive approach based on principles of the Grounded Theory by Glaser and Strauss (1967). An iterative process of data collection, analysis and interpretation was ongoing throughout the research. As a result of this different categories and concepts have emerged and been constructed from this process. These categories and concepts represent hybrid points of where the ‘Western’ and ‘Balinese’ concepts meet. They are intended to serve as translational bridges.

The article aims to contextualize the research by means of thick description (Geertz 1973) using categories and concepts of environmental knowledge, attitudes and behavior as well as the motivations and adversities for plastic bag use. To describe details about the data collected, we hope to increase the understanding and at the same time validity of the interpretations provided (cf. Lincoln and Guba 1985).

3 Local Environmental Knowledge in Bali

In this section we present the views of nature by Balinese people in different categories: History, Education and Religion. We developed and employed these categories by departing from familiar ‘Western’ categories, which also represent our starting point and therewith the starting points of many interviews and informal conversations held. Within, across and in between those categories ‘Balinese’ concepts of nature come to the front. However, we will learn that ‘Western’ and ‘Balinese’ concepts are not mutually exclusive and people may interconnect or constitute them in parallel ways.

3.1 History

Less than half a century ago environmental pollution by waste was not a problem on and around the island of Bali. Buying food at the market, taking it home or to work had been done using sustainable practices. As found in several talks with Balinese – but also are still often seen – baskets carried on top of the head have served to carry larger amounts of shopping goods for a long time. These are fine for carrying unprocessed fresh vegetables or fruits. In the case of meat, fish or processed food (Tofu, TempeFootnote 1 etc.), they were first wrapped in coconut or banana leaves. As plates a coconut shell or wooden plate worked well. This practice has existed for many centuries, ‘before the era of plastic began in Bali’ (Hindu Priest).

To the Balinese Hindu the daily offerings prepared and placed to the different manifestations of God appear as important as the provision of food to themselves. This together with around 50 more ceremonies throughout the year, requiring even larger amount of offerings, has always produced a substantial amount of abandoned resources. However, the traditional content of offerings, such as flowers, fruits, rice, along with the baskets, disposed banana and coconut leaf wrappings, have been more of a fertilizer than a source of risk for people’s health or the ecosystem. ‘The offerings used in the ceremony (…) will degrade over time, such as leaves, coconut shell, it can decay so that the old offerings – after the completion of the ceremony – are used as organic fertilizer.’ (Hindu Priest). To dispose the organic matter into rivers or burn the waste to regain space and also for fertilizing the soil showed to be rather well adapted waste management practices through time.

3.2 Education

As with many other areas of life in Bali, there are strong dynamics underlying people’s perceptions and concepts of the natural environment. There are some indications that Balinese with higher education and those living in urban areas share views of nature similar to ‘Western’ concepts. The most significant difference can be seen between generations. However, there are no clear cut lines, and younger Balinese very much share traditional ‘Non-Western’ Balinese concepts of nature and at the same time they refer to ‘Western’ concepts. This is not surprising acknowledging the increasing exposure of young Balinese to different Western media and many Western tourists coming to their island. But there is another important factor changing the way young Balinese think about environmental issues including eco-systems, pollution, waste, climate change and health: Their education in schools. ‘The perspective of environmental education in the curriculum 2013 is packed with the expectations that learners gain awareness and sensitivity, gain a variety of experience and a basic understanding of the environment’ (Prihantoro 2015: 83).

Prihantoro (2015) shows the important role of environmental education in Indonesian school curriculum today. We learned about different environmental initiatives in collaboration with schools. These ranged from education on waste management to holistic social, cultural and environmental approaches as represented by the Adiwiyata Mandala program by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment (cf. KLH 2012). Four schools have been visited in Bali throughout 2014 and 2015. It was very clear that the students knew about many concepts part of ‘Western’ environmental discourses. We had discussions on recycling, degradable and non-degradable waste, waste separation, pollution of the sea and climate change. Since the students were part of specific environmental programs, on-site waste separation, as well as composting was part of their daily practices.

The Directorate General of Primary and Secondary Education included environmental education into national curriculum already in 1984 (KLH 2012). Since then the subject has grown to be a more important part of education in Indonesia (cf. Kusmawan et al. 2009). In interviews and discussions with parents of young Balinese on environmental topics such as pollution by plastic bags and waste separation, the parents often referred to their children and how their children learned about these things in schools. ‘Western’ concepts of nature and the environment – including the vulnerability of the ecosystem – as taught in Indonesian schools, are of increasing relevance to the way Balinese think about nature, as well as their respective behaviour.

3.3 Religion

While around 90% of all Indonesians are Muslims, around 90% of the Balinese are Hindu (BPS 2010). Common to the vast majority of Indonesians is the important role of religion in their lives. Perceptions, understanding and interaction with the natural environment are largely influenced by religious beliefs and practices. Hindu-Dharmaism, the Balinese form of Hinduism, has been explained in interviews emphasizing different aspects. One is the concept of Tri Hita Karana, the harmonic relationship in between God, society and the environment. At different points in the interviews with and talks to Balinese they returned to their God’s trinity of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu as a starting point to clarify what the environment is about.

So there is like Shiva for wind, Brahma for fire and Vishnu for water […]. When Shiva gets angry there will be a tornado. When Vishnu gets angry there will be a tsunami, and when Brahma gets angry there will be fire, like forest fires, also without people making the fire. It also happens when people destroy the environment, like Lapindo [Indonesian gas company].Footnote 2 That’s why in Bali there is no drilling. There was a demonstration that, if they need to drill in order to produce electricity, it is better to go back to life without electricity. (Male Balinese teacher)

This quote serves as an example on how the belief of many Balinese Hindus is connected to animistic ideas of nature or rather natural ‘elements’, which are perceived as emotional beings. The animistic or anthropomorphic quality of nature is a central concept to their understanding of their relationship with the environment and also how to understand it. Natural disasters are angry outbreaks by nature due to misbehaviour on behalf of individuals or the society at large. ‘There is no eruption of volcanoes because we make a ceremony every year’ a Balinese woman said. ‘Why is there always water on Bali? Even in dry season? Because we pray at the temples close to the lake.’ another young man explained. Central to maintaining a healthy and balanced relationship to nature are religious practices such as ceremonies, including offerings and prayers to one of the many manifestations of God. Beyond purely religious activities other behaviour towards the environment can upset its spirits and provoke environmental problems or disasters in return. A teacher said: ‘I believe that the problem of dryness is because people are not praying and there is no balance in between construction and trees’. Several of the people talked to were worried about a land reclamation project, which is currently planned for the south of Bali. They fear ‘the sea will get angry’ and strike back with a tsunami. Whether it is drilling for gas, excess construction or land reclamation, many are expecting an environmental crisis as a consequence.

Ibu Pertiwi – which translates to Mother Earth – is another central religious and mythological concept showing in Balinese people’s perceptions, ideas and actions involving the natural environment. ‘Ibu Pertiwi is the entire world. This is Ibu Pertiwi. So don’t hurt her.’ A male merchant in his late thirties explained. During the socialization of an environmental program in a local community, the village head also referred to the environment by talking about Ibu Pertiwi. A locally well-known religious leader emphasized in an interview ‘We really respect the earth. We call her mother, like our mother, Ibu Pertiwi’.

So if the earth, with its trees, rivers, lakes and sea is so respected and often seen as holy, from a ‘Western’ perspective we tend to wonder, how come it is being polluted and littered so badly? Besides the lack of proper waste management services, we believe that the answer to this has to be mainly seen in the perception of many Balinese that polluting and littering is not understood as disrespectful or irreverently behaviour. Again, Balinese frequently view environmental disasters and crisis not necessarily caused by environmentally adverse behaviour, often it is a general moral misconduct. Views based on ‘Western’ environmentalist concepts may be on the rise but are rather rare. One of the few people who connected an environmentalist view with a Hindu-Balinese concept of nature was a shop owner who believed that littering may also provoke anger in Ibu Pertiwi: ‘There are many problems for Ibu Pertiwi. […] Everybody put some rubbish in the river, everywhere, put it in the ocean, to Ibu Pertiwi. […] So when Ibu Pertiwi gets angry, maybe there will be an earthquake’. What most tourists on the island see as an overwhelming and disturbing problem, when they spot plastic bags and other waste at the side of the roads, in rivers, on beaches and in the sea, may not irritate Balinese residents in the same way. The waste and littering seems to not interfere with the principles guiding Balinese towards respecting nature as a sacred environment. Another revealing perspective was shared by a Hindu priest talked to about the problem of plastic bag waste. He explained:

Actually Balinese Hindu believe that anything that can go to the market and be purchased is considered holy. For example, there are eggs after the ceremony washed and then sold to the market again, to be purchased and considered holy, because they believe in the God of the market, Dewi Melanting. Same with plastic becoming holy, with them not knowing about the plastic and its effects. So their actions do not make them realize that they suffer from their own actions. (Hindu Priest)

As the priest further argued, these beliefs and practices stem from the times when fruits, vegetables and other unprocessed food and spices were traded at the market. All were seen as blessings from nature. The temple next to each local market makes sure everything coming to the market is blessed. What has formerly been the banana or coconut palm leaf, a blessed material from Ibu Pertiwi, to carry shopping goods and eventually returned to nature behind the house or in a river, has within a short time switched to being a plastic bag. The way to handle plastic and the way it is culturally seen is very much the same as any other blessed organic material originating from Mother Earth.

4 Plastic Bag Use

So far we have discussed the concepts shaping Balinese people’s understanding and behaviour in relation to the environment. We also know more about what issues are perceived as problematic towards the environment or not, and the cultural reasons for that. As much as the use or non-use of plastic bags needs to be viewed in connection to its negative effects on the environment we also need to go beyond the environmental context. In this section we will explore the reasons for the frequent use of plastic bags by Balinese, and why – in the view of Balinese – plastic bags may not be a good choice.

4.1 Reasons for Plastic Bags Use

For several interviews on the advantages and disadvantages of plastic bag use, we instructed university and high school students to ask shoppers about their views. Analysing the data of around 20 interviews showed three major benefits to shoppers: Using plastic bags is practical, easy and cheap. These were the terms the shoppers told us, but they also serve as categories for other advantages people mentioned, the use of plastic bags brings to them. It is ‘practical’ to shoppers that plastic bags are foldable, hygienic, durable, reusable, multi-functional and water-proof. All of these had been mentioned more than twice to us. Related to the concept of being practical was the reason of being easy to use. ‘Easy’ was the second most often answer to us and in this category we also find answers that point out that plastic bags are readily available, lightweight and easy to dispose of. Somewhat of a different aspect is being highlighted in answers that state using plastic bags is modern. Using baskets or banana leaf wrappings as in the former days makes people embarrassed. To explain this further, one person gave this example to illustrate: ‘When they come to the cities first, they also wear sarong.Footnote 3 But when they come a second time, they may start to get embarrassed.’ Just as choosing what dress to wear, the shopping bag they use is a fashion and status statement of modernity.

So while some appear to be taking identity and status concerns into account and change towards the new, there are others arguing that using plastic bags has just become their habit: ‘It’s normal’. In the survey with 60 shop owners, we also included a question of why they use plastic bags. Similar to the data above, almost two thirds argued that plastic bags are the most practical solution to carry shopping home. Due to their different role as shop owner in the shopping process, other motives were added. From shop owners’ perspective providing the purchase of the customer directly in a plastic bag is good for the sales – good and cheap customer service. Plastic bags compare to other carrying devices also have the advantage that the purchase can be seen, one shop owner added.

Based on the observations of people’s use of plastic bags in everyday life, it shows how widely plastic bags are being used. There are many situations well beyond the grocery shopping. Small plastic bags are being used as food packaging for the popular small crackers which are often produced by home-business and wrapped piece by piece. Parts of the many offerings which are placed at the Hindu temples every day are often wrapped in plastic bags. Often the big fruit basket offerings are also entirely wrapped in plastic bags. You find plastic bags also along the rice fields attached to poles in order to scare away birds picking the seeds. Shirts and dresses in fashion stores in some cases have each piece hanging sealed in large plastic bags. Something remarkably from a Western perspective: Whether keyboards from computers, frames of TVs, cushions on chairs, entire sofas, and many other objects in Indonesia are sealed into plastic. Among the reasons for that may certainly be the protection against dust and dirt, but in some cases the plastic represents the new, a recent purchase, something beyond the practical, more towards the status partially based on wealth, spending money, partially taking care properly, keeping it clean, being a good household.

4.2 Disadvantages of Plastic Bags

Many people enjoy the benefits from using plastic bags, not only in Bali and the rest of Indonesia, but in many other parts of the world. But there are also reasons for avoiding plastic bags. In the ‘West’ the negative environmental effects from using, producing and disposing or dumping plastic bags has created a critical attitude towards them. Do Balinese share these critical attitudes, and what are reasons to them to avoid plastic bags or choose alternatives?

Asking about disadvantages of plastic bags the most frequent answer we heard was the problem of flooding caused by plastic bags. The ditches and drainages in between roads and houses are often clogged by waste, especially plastic bags. In case of heavy rains, as during rainy season, the clogged waterway in front of your house may result in inundation of your home. Plastic bags causing flooding is therefore among the biggest concerns many Balinese people have with plastic bags. Other negative qualities of the plastic bag use, explained shop owners, are that they are expensive, but as customers ask for them so they need to provide. Almost a quarter of the 60 shop owners surveyed mentioned this. Other comments were that they break easily, get dirty and quickly smell. The problem that plastic bags are contributing to the amount of waste and causing air and soil pollution have nevertheless been mentioned by several people. During a socialization event of a local anti-plastic bag initiative, the village leader pointed out: ‘Plastic bags are objects very dangerous for our lives on this earth, for all living creatures. Plastic is one of the most dangerous killers, but we do not realize, we do not know how dangerous plastic is’. And a religious leader talked to said: ‘In the villages they are regretful about the plastic, because the soil is becoming less productive.’ These quotes represent very strong convictions and perspectives. As local leaders they are eloquent and it is noteworthy to find this environmental awareness similar to ‘Western’ views. But these views are not widely spread. Although many people express concern about the waste problem, insights on the polluting mechanism and risks, such as a potential decrease of soil fertility, are not shared among the majority of people.

It is not a rare exception to find critical – on environmental consideration based – views towards plastic bags. Critical views are often expressed by the younger school and student generation, but this ‘Western’ perspective is not so widely spread. Far more common is an understanding shared by what may be the majority that the plastic bags contribute to the flooding problems in different parts of the island when heavy rainfall, together with clogged waterways, results in flooded homes and streets. The flooding issue is rarely part of ‘Western’ discourses, although there is a case of flash flood in L.A. being caused by clogged plastic bags having been discussed against the background of the plastic bag ban in California (San Jose Mercury News 2016). In India and Bangladesh, the infrastructural conditions had caused similar problems to Bali and can be seen to have been the main driving forces there leading to regulations and bans of plastic bags, again due to flooding and subsequent health concerns (Ritch et al. 2009; Gupta 2011). Despite the mentioning of negative effects from flooding, we did not come across these arguments as a specific and sole reason for those Balinese explaining their reduction of plastic bags use. Those Balinese who avoid or reduce the plastic bag use argue – if not solely along ‘Western’ environmental reasons (cf. Cherrier 2006) – at least in combination with those.

5 Plastic Bag Free

So far we have learned about the ‘Western’ and ‘Balinese’ concepts allowing the Balinese to understand and behave in a certain way towards and within the natural environment. After obtaining a better understanding of benefits and disadvantages of plastic bags to the Balinese, we will now turn towards the efforts and achievement of a local initiative to stop the use of plastic bags on Bali.

During the fieldwork Roger Spranz has been able to join the monthly meetings and participate in a number of activities by the local initiative Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB). We will discuss the approach and results of their campaign in the following to learn more about effective ways of reducing plastic bag consumptions. What could be learned from BBPB’s activities, is it a successful model for replication in other parts of Indonesia or beyond?

Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB) is a local initiative mainly driven by teenagers between 11 and 17 years of age to make Bali plastic bag free. It was founded by two Indonesian sisters in 2013, their father Indonesian, their mother Dutch. Most of the active members are teenagers from international schools, often with at least one parent being from another country. BBPB’s core activity had been the collection of one million signatures – on- and off-line, to hand over to the Governor of Bali in order to ban plastic bags. BBPB have also gained the support of a local village head who offered his village as a pilot village for being plastic bag free. To follow up this opportunity there have been a number of community meetings and village days, during which the teenagers of BBPB have distributed free reusable bags and conducted surveys with shop owners and villagers. Beyond these activities there BBPB has received large attention from local, national and international media. The teenagers have started to visit more and more local Indonesian schools to spread the word and motivate new members to join. BBPB have given presentations at large conferences, as well as at INK talks in India and TED global in London. BBPB is being supported in different ways by the Rotary Club, Jane Goodall foundation and UNORCID, which Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon initiated after a visit to the school of the BBPB founders.

Mass media and nowadays social media play an increasingly decisive role. More than one and a half million viewers have seen the TED talk by BBPB; a result which would not have been possible without sharing the video on social media. The same month the TED talk has been released – February 2016 – several big supermarket and retail chains across Indonesia, introduced a fee for plastic bags. Among many other very committed groups, e.g. the activists Diet Kantong Plastik from Java, BBPB have surely contributed to this achievement.

After several attempts with the former governor of Bali, who had signed letters stating intentions to reduce plastic pollution, but who never moved forward in terms of tangible legislation, in 2018 a new governor took office. The new governor Koster quickly took action and passed a plastic ban law end of 2018, coming in effect after a grace period of 6 months. In June 2019, aside from plastic straws and Styrofoam, plastic bags were banned. From major supermarkets to smaller grocery stores the ban was effectively followed by big retail chains and franchises. However, among individual stores and especially traditional local markets no big changes were seen. One thing the ban did achieve, plastic pollution and its problematization, among society evolved from being a marginal topic to a mainstream one. While the degree of problematization may vary and among certain groups still be weak, the governor eventually speaking out about why he is issuing this ban, explaining the need for society to refuse single use plastics, has represented an important milestone regarding the use and end of using plastic bags.

After considerable progress in the economic, political and societal spheres the use of plastic bags and other plastics came recently to a renaissance due to the impact of the Covid-19 and the increase of single use plastic products and packing around the world and in Bali, too. But it is less than before and there is little doubt that BBPB’s activities and activism in Bali’s communities and directed at the local government in Bali has been supportive to raise awareness and introduce legislation of banning plastic bags.

The BBPB initiative is quite different compared to other more traditional community based approaches and campaigns. As such, to what degree can the approach of the BBPB initiative be a model beyond Bali, for other parts of Indonesia and other countries? There are several difficulties for replicating the approach, the ethnic and culturally differing background of the BBPB members is not ‘accessible’ to Indonesian children. Whether an initiative of Indonesian children due to their traditionally more subordinating role in families and society – is possible and how well it will be perceived remains an open question. While a similar success such as in Bali is hard to identify, the fact that local BBPB campaign groups have now been organized in more than 50 locations in other regions of Indonesia and around the globe, e.g. in the US, India and Australia shows a first step and faith by other activist to give the BBPB model a chance for successfully campaigning against the use of plastic bags elsewhere. Only the next months and years can tell us more on what impact can be expected from the BBPB in a variety of contexts.

6 Discussion and Concluding Remarks

This article has analysed the issue of plastic bag pollution on Bali and possible solutions. We approached the phenomena by attempting to understand and explain Balinese people’s perceptions and concepts of the environment. Different dimensions of the environment have been presented, as they are being constructed and formed through history, in the educational system and in the religious context. The environment is not perceived to be harmed by the waste management practices of burning and dumping waste as it is a practice that has been done throughout past centuries. What has changed is that plastic bags and other sorts of waste have been added to the picture. However, when it comes to cleaning-up and disposing waste many Balinese perceive a discarded plastic bag just like the traditional banana leaf wrapping that has helped to bring some food home from the market. This view that disposed plastic waste is not problematic to the environment is supported by religious concepts that appreciate all goods –including plastic bags – traded at the market as blessed. Hence the traditional practices continue while the material − from mainly organic to more and more non-organic and plastic − is quickly changing.

When it comes to understanding Balinese people’s relationship towards nature, it is important to remember that most have specific religious ideas on ‘who’ the environment is, and why it ‘behaves’ in a certain way. This anthropomorphisation of natural objects and phenomena is a concept about the environment widely and firmly held by most Balinese. Very much like other human beings, Ibu Pertiwi (Mother Earth) can get hurt and react angry, although the reasons to get upset are dominantly political and moral failures. Frequent natural disasters, like tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and volcano eruptions are therefore seen as the angry outbreaks and consequences of the moral misconduct. Environmental wrongs in the ‘Western’ sense are rarely taken as source of anger for Ibu Pertiwi. ‘Western’ explanations and interpretations are however increasingly added to views of Balinese people. Among younger generations the vulnerability of the ecosystem from a scientific point of view is getting acknowledged more frequently, such as the problematisation of plastic bags and other waste pollution. Nevertheless ‘Western’ views are hardly dominant and only rarely part of the discourse. While there is a potential for contradicting local Balinese perspectives, ‘Western’ aspects are in fact often added, integrated or held in a parallel manner in complementary reference systems for understanding and interpreting the environment. This leads to what Nygren (1999) appropriately describes as ‘heterogeneous knowledges’. The variety in hybridizations of environmental concepts in Balinese lives helps explain the frequent surprises or seeming contradiction one comes across on the way to a better understanding of local environmental knowledge.

In line with research by other scholars (Pasang et al. 2007; Tejalaksana 2012), the data collected shows that pollution by waste is not widely perceived as problematic. Given the current low problematisation of (plastic) pollution, future awareness campaigns must recognize, embed and connect their approach well to the respective ‘Balinese’ environmental concepts. As has been pointed out, Ibu Pertiwi gets hurt from the pollution of waste and she can get angry and strike back in form of natural disasters.

Then we narrowed the focus from the environment in general towards the use and perceptions of plastic bags in Balinese people’s views. We learnt that to most people the striking negative effect from plastic bags are floods caused by the clogging of waterways. In Bangladesh, a plastic bag ban was implemented largely to reduce the negative effects from floods. These consequences are easy to understand and more relevant to current priorities in the views of many Balinese. It can therefore be very useful to raise awareness toward the negative effects of plastic bags by including and connecting to this existing problematisation of plastic bags in discourses in Bali and other flooding prone areas in Indonesia and beyond.

Problematic views of plastic bags by Balinese people can support more effective awareness campaigns, but it is just as important to understand the positive qualities and popularity of plastic bags to inform promising behavioural change approaches. The dominant reasons for using plastic bags in the view of Balinese shoppers and shop owners are very pragmatic. They are practical, easy and cheap, pointing all into the same direction for the vast majority. This reasoning is very much in line with findings from other studies looking at plastic shopping bag use, such as Hawkins (2001), who describes it as the ‘easy convenience of plastic bags’. Gupta (2011) points to the ‘easy availability’ of plastic bags. But also the plastic bag’s role for status and identity has come to the fore. Choosing a non-plastic shopping bag in the ‘Western’ context is often a conscious ethical and environmental decision, making people feel better about themselves (cf. Cherrier 2006). In other contexts, the contrary may hold true. Often it is the use of plastic bags that allows people to feel better, more modern. Examples for this can be seen in what Yasmeen (2013) describes as the postmodern ‘plastic bag housewives’ in the case of Bangkok in Thailand. Stone (2006) points out how in the Turkish context minarets were referred to as symbols of tradition and plastic bags as symbols of modernity. Along this argument the use of plastic bags may represent a modern, a preferred attitude and identity for Balinese. When Hawkins (2001) analyses ‘The object marketed for its convenience evokes a modernist asceticism and temporality (…)’ he shows how both aspects – convenience and modernity – are related and play together in the choice of plastic bags. Beyond these considerations the repetitive use and mainstreaming of plastic bags lead to their normality and the habitualisation of use (Ohtomo and Ohnuma 2014). Knowing the motivations leading towards the plastic bag use habit can be helpful also in regard to creating eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bags.

In the last section of this paper we turned to finding solutions for the plastic bag problem on Bali. The analysis of the Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign showed the power of a charismatic social initiative by teenagers in receiving the attention of local, national and international media. Jordan and van Tujil (2000) and Wright (2000) point out that the success of a campaign is crucially linked to its presence in mass media. Gritten and Kant (2007) explain the important role of local and national media in environmental campaigns and provide an example in the region of an effective campaign against an Indonesian pulp and paper company. Those young teenagers, coming from hybrid families, being very familiar with Balinese and ‘Western’ concepts of nature might have been able to build the required translational bridges. They might have the necessary “amphibiousness”, which Pauwelussen and Verschoor (2017 #3100) describe as “the ability to move in and relate different worlds that do not add up, yet partly flow into each other” (p. 295), when they report on the important role of local people, who are familiar with both worlds, when ‘Western’ conservation NGOs try convince in this case Bajau people in Sulawesi to conserve coral reefs. Those translational bridges provided by Bye Bye Plastic but also other actors lead to, as has been shown e.g. by quotes the Hindu priest mentioned above that perspective get a higher ‘plasticity’. A contamination, but also a fructification between the different knowledges is facilitated.

The success of campaigns such as BBPB is often difficult to assess due to its multidimensionality (Cf. Keck and Sikkink’s 1998). It is therefore hardly possible to define the scope of BBPB’s influence on the government’s decision in regard to introducing fees on plastic bags for selected commercial sectors and areas in Indonesia. A fee on plastic bags has shown to be a very effective tool to reduce plastic bag use in many countries across the globe, for example in the UK, Germany and Ireland (New York Times 2008). However, the political and societal will to implement such policies, or marketing strategies by retailers, only recently emerging in Indonesia, has to be nourished by societal change, among others fostered by initiatives like Bye Bye Plastic Bags.

The public support and media attention for BBPB also resulted in government representatives inviting the initiative for a meeting. The governor received and listened to the teenagers’ request of stopping the plastic bag pollution. As a result of the meeting the governor and environmental agency of Bali have announced to support the goal of making Bali plastic bag free within their jurisdiction and responsibilities. While there is still no legally binding document, this could be a step towards banning plastic bags, which has been the central request by BBPB. A plastic bag ban has already effectively worked in a number of countries, for example in Uganda, Kenya, and Bangladesh (Cf. Teh et al. 2014). These policies often take a long time to be applied, monitored and effectively enforced.

In the meantime, and with the insights of this article we hope to contribute to the knowledge about the perception and understanding at work that contextualize and influence the use of plastic bags. To connect with the local perceptions of nature and existing problematisations of plastic bags, as specified in this article, can inform effective approaches for awareness campaigns, local initiatives and political programs. The role of fashion, identity, and convenience related factors are crucial in people’s choice and use of plastic bags. Alternatives to plastic bags will have to consider these factors in order to successfully facilitate a behavioural change. There are hence opportunities not only for environmental initiatives and NGOs, but also politicians and businesses towards creating an environment free from plastic bags.