· By Maria Nilsson
It is every ocean and surf loving girls dream to skip out of the winter chill in search of clean, warm, point break waves, hot sunshine and cheap delicious food. Having two of your best friends in tow, is the coconut oil on your crispy fried skin at the end of a day of wave riding bliss.
It isn't like we have it tough, we live in a paradise home where the sun regularly shines, the water is crystal and the waves, well they are pretty amazing. It is a place where women outnumber men in the lineup and ride perfect, glass walls with elegance, beauty and style. Having the freedom to surf in Byron Bay, is every female surfers dream.
But it was adventure and sunshine we were after, so off we hopped and away we went. The month was July, it was Byron winter, it was time to escape. Prior to leaving, we had been sharpening our lifestyle practices to live as best as we could by the challenge of “Plastic Free July”; trying to refuse single-use plastic for the entire month. Living where we live, we have it easy. We are surrounded by like minded folk who drive and inspire such a way of life. We also have access to an array of bulk goods in various local stores and can buy fresh, organic, unwrapped produce directly from the farmer, at the weekly farmer markets and bountiful roadside stalls. Personally, I have been trying to live without plastic for a number of years now, its been an amazing journey of finding out what I can actually totally live without and also what epic things we can make for ourselves. This journey has led to greater creativity in the kitchen, healthier more wholesome eating, an almost four year absence of hair washing and a whole heap of other personal and home use DIY tricks.
I can’t exactly remember when the penny dropped on this one. I still clearly remember the days of shopping at chain supermarkets and filling plastic bags up with plastic food or walking through my uni campus en route to an environmental conservation lecture with a disposable, takeaway coffee cup, oblivious to the impact of my daily habit. I guess one day I just realised that we are doing things terribly wrong and that plastic doesn't go away and that lots of bad things are happening in the ocean as a direct result of our plastic obsessed society. Plastic is everywhere but I told myself if I tried really hard, I could use less and by maybe by me using less a friend might use less too and then if this flowed on to another friend and another friend, then collectively, we’ll be making a difference.
So anyway, back to the surfing. Without giving too much away, because no one wants to be responsible for blowing up a relatively unexplored and very unexploited patch of surfy heaven, our destination was continental Asia; somewhere in Indonesia. This wasn't my first trip to this part of the world so I already had prepared myself for the insane reliance on plastic that has become ingrained into the Indonesian culture. I clearly remember on my first trip to Bali many years ago, the mountains of used water bottles that I saw shoved into street corners or piled beneath warung staircases, the plastic straws and noodle cups that lay on the black sand beaches and the thousands of pieces of broken down, unrecognisable plastic that haunt every high tide mark. I remember reading a sign that trip that has stuck with me ever since, it read that there are over 30 million single use plastic water bottles used on the island of Bali alone, every month. How do we even begin to address this problem when an entire country does not even have access to clean drinking water? I let out a humungous sigh even re-reading this sentence to myself.
It was not Bali where we were headed this time around however and what we were about to see, I don’t think any of us had really expected. The trash, it was everywhere. If you could imagine the main point break beach anatomically, you could say it was almost covered in rubbish from head to toe; plastic bags, water bottles, toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, shoes, nappies, straws, noodle cups, cigarette butts, you name it, if it was non-biodegrable, it was there. These were our land observations, we were yet to even hit the water. Unfortunately, what awaited us in the ocean was a fairly similar story. Like buoys, plastic items bobbed around, they hit you in the face when you passed under a wave and stroked your hand whilst you stroked the water. My first few surfs, I took to shoving pieces down my swimsuit, it wasn't long before I gave up on this.
It has to be mentioned that despite this overwhelming problem, it might be impossible to fall in love with a place more than we did with this one. It had it all, from the friendliest and most welcoming locals, whose daily presence was often as much of a highlight of our day as the uncrowded, perfect waves we were riding hour after hour. The food was cheap and ever so tasty, the coffee delicious and black and able to be served with a side of coconut cream, much to the wonder of our ever accommodating homestay hosts. It seemed our Byron-trinsic coffee habits were as much of a talking point for the locals as the organic wax we glossed our longboards with.
So whether it was from this place of endearment or the recognition that we couldn't just surf and relax all day long, we had to do something to help this patch of fragile earth and perhaps start a conversation that hadn't been too frequently voiced. So we cleaned the beach, not the whole beach but some of it. In the space of about 45 minutes we had covered an area of about 20 metres and we almost filled an entire wheelie style rubbish bin. Whilst cleaning we were thrown inquisitive looks, asked questions like what were we doing and why, and were walked past awkwardly by other westerners who for whatever reasons knew what were doing but didn't join in. There was so much more we could have done, but that was where we left it, with an acceptance that in the scheme of things what we did was minuscule but perhaps a vision for some that would resonate and impact behaviour and attitudes.
After the clean it was back to the ocean, we must have received some mother earth karma that day because the waves and conditions we received were some of the best of my life and will be a day of surfing I doubt I will ever forget. So we grabbed our boards and headed to mama. During this time a big group of people had sat themselves in the space we had just cleaned. We spoke amongst ourselves about what would be left behind once the gathering was over, I hoped for the best but feared for the worst. The people were gone but their presence was incredibly clear. In their wake they left behind plastic bags overflowing with plastic goods, these were both tied to trees and left sitting on the sand. The sand itself was a mess with straws, drinking cups and food wrappers, it was both shattering and highly thought provoking. This all ironically took place beneath a sign nailed to a tree, implemented by Ripcurl reading “Kurangi kantong plastik” - reduce plastic bag use. Perhaps they just didn't see it.
Our beach clean sparked a conversation with the locals who live seaside in this surfing and fishing village. For them, the ocean is as much a part of their life as it is ours, having that intrinsic respect helps to shape their attitudes and behaviours, their knowledge on the issue of plastic and the state of their country was quite evident. The problem, whilst visible on the shores of their beaches, they acknowledged, stems from an endemic lack of education and awareness of the impact that plastic presents. Long gone are the days where their culture was reliant only upon banana leaves which without any harm or effect could be tossed on the ground and turned back into the earth. It is this cultural behaviour that some believe correlates with the vast amount of pollution that enters the earth every day from this nation.
I guess from our point of view, it is so hard to say what it is going to take to create change and shift the mentality of millions. As westerners, who have the wealth, freedom and opportunity to frequent these tropical surfing paradises, we are left with our own opportunity to make change and be the difference these people need to see. We can take time out to clean the beaches, we can say no to the plastic drinking straw put in every coconut, we can certainly avoid the use of plastic bags and we can buy our water in bulk, reusable vessels and make use of the chance to refill our own bottles.
About a year has passed since we first set foot on the shores of this surfing paradise and we are just weeks out from returning for a repeat of the goodness we were graced with last year. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this plastic problem that’s going to slap us right back on the face when we return. It scares me and overwhelms me, but we will go and we will surf and eat and sleep and joke about bazzers and hanging ten and be the queens of eternal grom life. We will continue to recognise the problem and wonder what the heck we can do to help. We will promise to drink coconuts without a straw-which is actually quite difficult, but we will persist and gather plastic waste where we can. Despite our concerns and our logic, it will be so much fun and gosh we are just so lucky.
Words by our amazing ambassador Clare Sullivan