Dave Rogers says the call inspired five people to collect a collective 5m pieces of plastic from mountainsides in Bali and sent the task on the way to an impossible target
The call for Bali’s residents to collect mountains of plastic from mountainsides sounded idyllic: people in a tropical paradise collecting a mountain of plastic for recycling. But as television host Dave Rogers stood in the middle of Mount Merapi and offered to keep a coconut and a piece of banana skin, the message of his plea turned disturbing: he was asking for plastic from miles away, for five feet.
“Who has that kind of plastic?” asked Rogers. His eyes glistened with laughter. “I have it on me.”
Whether or not you believe in the soul of nature, the idea of millions of mountains of plastic in one of the most beautiful places on earth doing nothing but sit will strike a chord with any urban dweller. Watching native Balians scramble up the sides of Mt Merapi, find palm fronds and hack at rocks with their bare hands, it was clear how much of our waste contributes to the devastating mountain fires and the toxic waste that flows down the Merapi.
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But I was on a mind trip. Everywhere around the mountain – the ridges, the small cloud bergs, the gash through the mountain – there was a catch. Plastic bags, bottles, empty tubes, lids. In some places plastic had probably come down here from outside; in others it came from vines. Yet everywhere around the mountain there was still – and has continued to be – trash.
Like any hunter, if there is something you can’t eat, you will harvest. My first order of business was to figure out where it was all coming from. Leaving behind my photographer, my niece and her friend, I went to the dirt track at the bottom of the mountain. Like a crack dealer, I drew my pretend “buy” line. I picked up a bottle of water.
The mountain has more plastic than litter, according to Dave Rogers. Photograph: Donna Melzer for the Guardian
And there I found my other purchase. Weirdly, this plastic seemed to make me nervous: a half-squished mouthpiece is likely to make someone ill. It wouldn’t be like my friend Theresa who had that experience on her hands the last time she gathered up a plastic bag. The fact that it was empty and so much bigger than the other plastic bags kept me anxious. I looked up at her. “Oh please, stay strong. I’m going to take care of this.”
“Can you imagine me just hoping this coconut and banana will fall off of your face,” I laughed. No one laughed. My stomach sank. I took a couple of big gulps of water to come to terms with this, and waited a moment to catch my breath.
I looked up and saw the pink haze rising from the ash plume. I knew it was only a small part of this much larger fire and the day was still young. But, like always, it was hard to keep calm. I didn’t have the strength to reach my second purchase: a couple of breadcrumbs. The market was closed and our macaroni couldn’t be cleared until after sundown.
I started slowly in my career as a filmmaker. You’re not a professional until you have aged into something less than 30. We hoped I might still be able to raise my hand and say, “Can you believe what we just did?”
We had been working on the project since the late summer but it took six months to get ready and it only came together in the first few weeks of January. Most people didn’t see us for months because our trail bikes and motorbikes can only travel on the narrow, uneven, unyielding paths that are not swept or raised. We would go to some village and walk up the mountain carrying 40kg bags and have no idea where we would end up the next day.
We lived like this, hoping that whatever we collected would carry us through. We didn’t actually collect anything until we saw the volcano shut down for several days. The mountain itself was closing in. Thankfully we still had time, but we couldn’t go up. And then we thought, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t be here either.” We just wanted to go home.