I love Bali: Simple things we forget: The value of compost
One of the main reasons we chose to live in Bali was the abundance of clean air and the outdoor life that is so very important to health and well-being, especially as one reaches “a certain age”. I think this is true for many people who live here, irrespective of their origin.
But in recent months, I have been overwhelmed by the amount of burning that is taking place close to our home. There has been, without doubt, an increase in the burning of organic matter and, more disturbingly, plastic, and I have witnessed this all over the island. Perhaps this is the clean-up drive resulting from the very negative international press over the last few years, or maybe there is simply more waste? I cannot say with certainty, but, whatever the reason, there is a marked increase in both volume and frequency.
The damage physical pollutants are doing to the island is clear and well documented. The damage that the burning is doing is less obvious and, in terms of our very own physical health, potentially far more dangerous.
The burning of polythene is actually not considered dangerous by the scientific community, because chemically it is very close to oil. In India, work is underway at using recycled polythene to create briquettes to be used in place of coal, however, once other chemicals in the form of dyes or plasticizers are added, then burning can be extraordinarily dangerous.
Burning plastic that contains unknown additives, such as the colored plastic bags that constitute so much of our waste here, can release toxins. If the plastics are halogenated, for example, then we know that burning releases dioxins.
Dioxins are produced during the manufacture of plastics containing chlorine and are released uncontrollably during low-temperature burning, such as on a fire.
Dioxin is also a known human carcinogen and the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of cancer-causing potential. Dioxin is over 10,000 times more potent than the next highest chemical (diethanol amine) and half a million times more potent than arsenic. (Source: ifenegy/NIST)
With the political climate not conducive to change or enforcement, our only current solution rests in our hands; so please say NO to plastic bags. But plastic is not the only danger, and certainly not the only thing burned on a regular basis.
Leaf burning is banned in many countries because it is a major source of air pollution, health problems and fire hazards. Leaf smoke often contains chemicals like carbon monoxide, which bind with hemoglobin in the bloodstream and reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood and lungs.
Another noxious chemical commonly present in leaf smoke is benzo[a]pyrene, which has been shown to be a major factor in lung cancer. While leaf smoke irritates the eyes, nose and throat of adults, it can is especially dangerous to children, the elderly and those with asthma or other lung or heart diseases. But what can we do?
Dian Livingstone from California, whilst working on making a Public Service Announcement for the US regarding topsoil, came to Bali some years ago and really hit upon one of the major issues facing the island on this front and provided a solution with benefits to all.
Livingstone explained: “Every day in Bali they sweep 2 to 6 times a day and burn those leaves.
Altogether they burn an estimated quarter of a million kilos of leaves each day. This not only causes pollution, but it destroys the nutrient value for food production.
What they don’t understand is that organic matter is a source of topsoil production, and if you burn it you’ve ended its food value forever in terms of topsoil. But if you feed it to the soil life, it’s a perpetual system; the leaves drop, go into the soil, and feed the tree.”
But why should we consider this use of leaves to enrich the soil when, after all, it is easier to sweep and burn. Dian convinced a local man who was planting 700 new fruit trees near Kintamani to try her ideas and together they dug a 1m deep ditch around the saplings and layered in the organic matter, wetting as they went. Due to the climate, the organic material breaks down quickly and the result is rapidly enriched soil at the root ball, resulting in more abundant and larger fruit. “We were able to get a 100 percent increase in yield,” Dian said, “with no chemical fertilizers or leaf burn.”
Chris O’Connor, a retired MD
currently exploring his creative and culinary interests