A worthwhile drop in the ocean: Jakub Freiwald on collecting trash on Indonesia’s beaches

Jakub Freiwald and part of the Trash Hero team, photo: archive of Jakub Freiwald

While many young European travellers visit Indonesia for its idyllic beaches and cheap lifestyle, Jakub Freiwald and his partner Jana recently spent several months helping fight the country’s major refuse problem by leading rubbish collection teams on the island of Lombok. When we spoke, Freiwald told me that the pair, who had initially helped set up a school in Indonesia, had been inspired to collect garbage by Trash Hero, a project originally started in Thailand by another young Czech.

Jakub Freiwald and part of the Trash Hero team,  photo: archive of Jakub Freiwald
“I came there with the idea of organising it. I had no idea if anybody would help us.

“I was there with my girlfriend and we asked a few locals if they would like to join, because we weren’t doing it for ourselves, but for them.

“Some of them said, Yeah, it’s a good idea, we were thinking for a long time about doing something like this but we never organised it.

“When I organised the first event I think 10 people joined us. It was me, my girlfriend, two expats living there for a long time and the rest were volunteers. In the following weeks more and more people came. I had a really good feeling about it.”

Is rubbish a particular problem in Indonesia?

“It’s big problem not only in Indonesia but in the whole of Asia, and in the whole world.

“I think here it’s a topic that people don’t want to talk about, because we already know how to deal with plastic, how to deal with rubbish.

“But in Asia people don’t have the knowledge. It came really fast, with all the development and economic progress.

“In the last 10 years so much plastic came into Thailand, into Indonesia and all those countries.

“Before people used to have all organic materials and now they have plastic and they have no idea what to do about it. So yes, I think it’s a big problem.”

I was reading an interview with you in which you said that they don’t even have dustbins.

“Before people used to have all organic materials and now they have plastic and they have no idea what to do about it. So yes, I think it’s a big problem.”

“Yes, that’s right. We were living in a small city that had, I don’t know, maybe 10,000 people, a little bit less, and there they had only one big container, at the market.

“And that was it – nothing else.”

So they just leave rubbish wherever they’re standing, just throw it behind them and walk away?

“Yes, they just throw it on the ground.

“But it’s not like you see garbage everywhere all the time. Even though people say they are lazy and they like mess and so on, I don’t think it’s true, because every evening they burn it. Or they put it under the ground.

“Nobody told them that that’s a bad thing. They think if they burn it, it just goes away and it’s done for them.”

Given that they seem to be not used to dealing with rubbish, what did you do with the rubbish that you collected?

“Well, there is absolutely no way to recycle there on the island we visited, which is named Lombok and is next to Bali.

“When you have no ways to recycle, you have to invent something.

“I wasn’t satisfied with putting rubbish in a container, because I had no idea where they put it afterwards, though I think it would end up in the river or the ocean again.

“So we looked on the internet, we asked other people in Trash Hero what they do with it, and they gave us some advice.

Photo: Jakub Freiwald
“For example, with plastic there is a thing called Ecobrick – you have an empty plastic bottle and you just put inside as much plastic as you can.

“When you are finished it’s very heavy. You can put up into one bottle one and a half kilos of plastic. Imagine one and a half kilos of plastic – it’s a full bag.

“And then you have a brick and you can start making things. You can build a chair, you can build a wall.

“It’s basically like a normal brick. I saw photos that in Africa they are able to build whole villages from this.

“It’s not the ultimate solution, because I don’t know what will happen with this brick in 10, 20 years. But it was the best solution that we were able to think of.”

Did you in any try to encourage the local people not to litter?

“Yes, that was my goal, actually. The goal wasn’t to collect trash, because when you leave there is nothing behind you.

“The goal was to persuade people to start doing it themselves.

“And I think the best way is not to tell them, Hey, you are doing something wrong. The best way is to be an example for them.

“So when we went to the same beach or the same spot every week, wearing nice yellow Trash Hero t-shirts, they started to come to us and ask, Hey guys, what are you doing here? They started wondering if they could help us somehow.

“The biggest goal for us was for Trash Hero to continue even after we left.

“When we were there we were able to do 10 or 11 clean-ups and for quite some time after we left nothing was happening.

“The goal wasn’t to collect trash. The goal was to persuade people to start doing it themselves.”

“I was quite sad that this was all for nothing, but right now they have started organising these events again, they started collecting again, so that was quite big satisfaction for us.”

Obviously this is work that can never be completed. And for all your good work it still must have had very little impact in the bigger scheme of things. Is that frustrating?

“It’s the same with many activities you do. It’s like a drop in the ocean. But I believe the ocean is made from all the drops.

“When you are able to change the mind of one person, then he can tell another person and another person.

“Yeah, you don’t see anything behind you. You only see the clean beach but the beach is dirty again in two days.

“So you must think positively all the time, that the thing you are doing is a good thing.

“Even though some people, or a lot of people, tell you that what you are doing is absolute bullshit and nothing will change, that the people don’t deserve this.

“I have some friends like this. And regarding the interview you mentioned before, many people were saying, Why aren’t you helping here? Why do you have to go over there to help?

“But I believe that it doesn’t matter where you help or how you help – if you help, it’s a good thing.”

Photo: Jakub Freiwald
This interview you’re speaking about was on the news site iDnes.cz. I didn’t read the comments but I saw there were a lot of them. Typically, how did the readers respond to your story?

“I was prepared for very negative reactions, to be honest. Because for these people being negative all the time is a hobby.

“And especially with a topic like this: helping in Indonesia, helping Muslims, especially – that’s a big topic now.

“Everyone was telling me not to read the discussion but I was like, Hey, it’s my interview, I don’t do interviews every day, I want to read it.

“So I read it, all of it, and nobody was talking about killing me, which is normal there, so I considered that a good thing.

“But in general they were telling me that what I am doing doesn’t make any sense, that it’s useless, that I should be helping here.

“They asked why we weren’t cleaning the streets here – even though we do actually clean here, as well.

“There was one guy who had an argument for everything I said. He told me, You went to Indonesia and you had to consume 1,000 kilos of gasoline, and things like that.

“Well, people will never be happy about everything and you just have to be prepared for that.”

You were saying that you also collect trash here in Prague. But did your experience of collecting rubbish, and especially plastics, on the other side of the world change in any way how you view Czech society, or European society, and how we consume things?

“A lot of people tell you that what you are doing is absolute bullshit and nothing will change, that the people don’t deserve this.”

“Yes, I’ve changed my thinking a little bit.

“I realised that even I should think more about what I’m doing here – that it’s automatic that you come to the supermarket and just take a plastic bag for everything, because it’s normal, everyone does it.

“It wasn’t only about Indonesia – there were some other things as well. I started to think more about what I’m doing in my normal life.

“It’s the drop in the ocean, again.

“You just don’t take a bag once and they look at you strangely, like, Why do you have all the fruit and no bag? I said, I don’t want it.

“Also with recycling and trash in general we have such big opportunities here. You don’t need to do much to be responsible, especially with trash. There are bins for recycling trash everywhere.

“But still I read recently that only 40 percent of Czechs nowadays, which was a very big shock for me.

“I started to think about how I could maybe influence people to be more responsible about this, because I don’t like the thinking that we just live in our country and what’s happening outside doesn’t matter.

“But we live on the same planet. When somebody throws garbage in the ocean in Europe at one point it can come to Europe.

“I read recently that in 20 or 30 years, a third of the world’s oceans will be plastic, will be trash. That’s very bad. I want to do something about that.”

Will you go back to Indonesia and continue with this project?

Jakub Freiwald,  photo: archive of Jakub Freiwald
“Yes, I will go to Indonesia in September, again for four, five or six months.

“I don’t go there just for the trash or anything – I go there because I like it over there and this is the little I can do to repay the country for what Indonesia is doing for me.

“It’s a beautiful country. I don’t just want to come there and say, Hey, you have trash everywhere and everything is dirty.

“I want to do something about it so I want to continue in collecting trash in Tanjung where I was before, and also I would like to set up a new base in another place I visited. So, yeah.”