(CNN)When the Covid-19 pandemic struck Indonesia’s island of Bali, tourism — the driving economic force in the region — just about came to a halt.
More than half of Bali’s economic revenue stems from tourism, employing hundreds of thousands of Balinese people in the industry.
Many moved back to their home villages. And with more people returning to the villages, more trash piled up. With so many people out of work, they were also going hungry.
“I said to myself, I got to do something about this,” said Made Janur Yasa, a vegan restaurant owner in the town of Ubud.
Yasa said he wanted to find a way to help people in his community during the pandemic while also addressing the ongoing problem of plastic pollution.
“I got to thinking, inside the challenge there is an opportunity,” he said.
So, he started a program where local villagers could exchange plastic for rice — a barter system that would benefit the environment and empower the local people. Residents can turn in plastic trash they collected in exchange for a main food staple.
In May 2020, he hosted the first exchange in the village where he was born and raised. It was a success, and the concept quickly spread to other villages across Bali. His non-profit, Plastic Exchange, was born.
“I thought to myself, if it works in my village, it will work in other places as well,” Yasa said. “I realized this thing was getting bigger than I had ever imagined.”
The program brings together local neighborhood groups called Banjars that collect plastic from their homes, streets, rivers, beaches and surrounding areas.
Villages hold community exchange events once a month in which residents can bring in plastic to trade in for rice. Yasa says the organization has so far helped feed thousands of families and collected nearly 300 tons of plastic for recycling.
“Teenagers come with a smile. Elderly people are there. Young kids come with their mothers. That’s what keeps me going, to see them all excited about it,” Yasa said. “They were feeling powerless, and this gives them hope.”
CNN: In what ways did the pandemic impact people’s livelihood in Bali?
Made Janur Yasa: When the pandemic hit, the economy shut down in Bali. A lot of businesses closed — restaurants, hotels, travel companies. We are so reliant on tourism. So, I see people losing their jobs. There were massive layoffs.
When all of these businesses shut down, and a lot of these workers didn’t have anything to do, a lot of them went back to their village. They went back to the land. But people had no income. So, really the first thing that people need is food. I saw people in my village start worrying about how they were going to put food on the table. People were really, really struggling, especially six months into the pandemic. And this concerned me.
CNN: What are some special aspects of Balinese culture that guide your efforts?
Yasa: People come from all over the world to live here because they are drawn to the holistic way that we live life here in Bali. I was born and raised in a small village here. The good thing about Bali is that the human-to-human connection is really strong. If I have more money than I need, I can help my neighbors.
We have a lot of traditional wisdom that guides our life here. One is called tri hita karana, which is the three ways to achieve happiness: dignity; human-to-human connection, which is considered prosperity; and human connection to the environment.
CNN: How does your program work?
Yasa: The villagers will receive the rice according to the type of plastic they bring and the amount that they bring. Each category has a different value. We work with a company that collects this plastic and sends it to Java for proper recycling, because we don’t a have recycling plant yet in Bali. We buy rice from the farmers. So, we’re really creating this circular economy, supporting the farmers and then we also clean the environment and feed people in that community.
People have fun with it. And now, after one year (of) this, picking up plastic is sexy. It’s the cool thing to do. People just get into it. Now, we are working with 200 villages. My goal is really to spread this movement.
CNN: How have some of these cultural wisdoms helped make Plastic Exchange successful?
Yasa: People in Bali live in nature. Traditionally, we believe nature has a soul. People do care about the environment. But the plastic pollution in Bali is because of lack of education and practice.
We’re trying to change behavior. The only way you can do that is through education. That’s how you change people’s habits. My method is showing them an example through action. We educate people on how to separate the plastic. And we also educate people on the dangers of the plastic. If it goes into the environment, it pollutes the water, the ocean, and that’s not good for the environment.
People here come together in a really, really good way. So once people are educated on how to properly dispose the plastic, they want to help and create change.
Want to get involved? Check out the Plastic Exchange website and see how to help.
To donate to Plastic Exchange via GoFundMe, click here.
Correction: An earlier version of this headline and story incorrectly stated the weight of plastic collected for recycling. It was 300 tons.