How Hoteliers in Bali Are Improving the Eco-Resort

In Bali, forward-looking hoteliers are pushing the eco-resort to its ultimate potential.

The battle started on the flight. I said no to the meal, a tray loaded with items wrapped in plastic and tinfoil. For every drink, the steward gave passengers another plastic cup. A young, fashionable British couple in front of me, possibly on their honeymoon, drank gin and tonics during the entire ten-hour flight from Doha, Qatar, to Bali, but every time they asked for another drink, they insisted the flight attendant use the same cup. The request made me reassess my opinion of them; I was clearly not alone in my small protest against gratuitous waste. 

For the past few years, I have been struggling to understand sustainability and reduce my footprint, even slightly. The research is daunting: Ryanair is one of the top ten polluters in Europe; less than 9 percent of the world’s plastic waste ever gets recycled; a recent study estimated that, by 2030, there will be more than 100 million tons of plastic waste left unaccounted for. A few years ago, I stopped buying plastic bottles and started making sparkling water with a SodaStream. I carry fabric bags when I shop, and, to avoid all the excess packaging, I don’t order in. For someone who flies on an airplane at least twice a month and has three children, it often feels like a Sisyphean task. Every few weeks, I read an article about how there are plastic particles in the deep sea and in everything we eat, and it makes me feel so defeated that I want to set fire to a rain forest and get it over with already. 

Instead, I decided to burn some carbon and fly to Bali to meet a few pioneers in the island’s small but ambitious green movement. I wanted to see whether luxury hospitality businesses—and, by extension, we as a society—could change our course from systems of convenience that generate excess waste, especially when it comes to single-use plastic, toward more sustainable, circular systems. 

Bali was the ideal setting: The island, which is currently dealing with an overtourism problem that has, in turn, created a water and waste crisis, is also home to a community of sustainability-minded designers and hoteliers who have come together to confront the island’s issues. Over the years, this local movement has evolved into a dynamic green incubator, much of it driven by John and Cynthia Hardy. Ten years ago, they built and founded the world’s first Green School, which offers an environmental curriculum for both local and international students from prekindergarten to high school. Next door to the Green School, two of John’s children are working on ambitious projects: Elora Hardy and her team at Ibuku studio have been building the Green Village, a community of bamboo villas, while his son, Orin, and his wife have founded Kul Kul, a permaculture farm that hosts workshops on a range of topics, from bamboo buildings to herbal medicine. The Hardys and their respective work have influenced many entrepreneurs as well as public initiatives, including a recent Bali-wide ban on plastic bags. 

From left: Baxter Smith, manager of the Green School’s innovation lab, using a 3-D printer; a student at the school paints a mural. Ken Kochey

“John has been preaching to me for the past eight years,” says hotelier Ronald Akili, whose children attend the Green School. In 2009, Akili opened the popular Desa Potato Head, a beach club in Seminyak, on the island’s southwestern coast. “He’s like, ‘Ron, you are the young blood, you have to take control.’”

The success of the Potato Head beach club spawned Potato Head restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Jakarta. Four years ago, Akili opened the Katamama hotel just behind the beach club. 

Akili’s forward-looking design aesthetic has always been at the core of his success. The Potato Head club’s façade, designed by the Indonesian architect Andra Matin, is made from salvaged window shutters and looks like a futuristic, upcycled UFO. Matin also designed Katamama, which is built of the handmade bricks typically used to construct the island’s Hindu temples. Opening next month right next to Katamama is Akili’s latest project: Beach House Hotel, a 168-room property designed by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA that will be what Akili describes as a cultural platform, with a rooftop performance area and skate park, an art and design exhibition space, a library, and a nightclub. 

About four years ago, after he had already negotiated the OMA project, Akili had several experiences that made him pivot all his businesses toward a sustainable path. One weekend while surfing, he and his children found so much trash in the ocean that they ended up spending the day sifting it out. It was so devastating, he recalled, that “even the tractors brought in to help clean up couldn’t get it all. And then, after hours and hours of cleaning up, the next day more came back with the tide.” 

Meanwhile, he had met and hired Dan Mitchell to be the resort’s global creative director. A London design-store owner, Mitchell had become disillusioned with the fashion industry and moved to Bali to drop out for a bit. “As soon as I met Ronald,” he said, “everything changed. He has a huge vision. Together we said, ‘Let’s use the brand as a platform to make change.’ We realized the bigger we get, the more impact we can make.” When they started out, the resort’s waste-to-landfill amount was much greater. These days, they have reduced waste so that 90 percent is recycled and reused (they turn wine bottles into drinking glasses, for example), and less than 7 percent goes to the landfill. “We are not scientists. We are not activists,” said Akili. “But we can be an experimental platform to connect our guests with entrepreneurs and artists and inspire the younger generation.” 

Potato Head’s motto is: Good Times, Do Good. The beach club in Bali has become a stylish hub that draws a diverse cross section of global revelers looking for an Instagram-worthy good time, but also subtly raises sustainability issues. The bouncer at the beach entrance will, for example, in a friendly manner, take away plastic bottles from guests, explaining that there is no single-use plastic allowed on the premises. A token for water, served in a glass, is given in exchange. 

Ijen, the resort’s open-air restaurant, is aiming to be a zero-waste restaurant, which means that none of the trash ends up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. “We are nearly there, but still tweaking a few things,” said manager Rushi Krishna, pointing out that paper towels are one of the hardest single-use products to replace. Other products, like receipt rolls that usually come wrapped in plastic, are specially ordered so that they come plastic-free. 

Some innovations, such as using crushed oyster shells mixed with Styrofoam waste to make wall tiles, have been developed with Baxter Smith, the manager of the Green School’s innovation lab. The Green School is often the go-to resource for sustainable solutions, and the students themselves are encouraged to take over a project. Recently, a group created a tool to audit the sustainable practices of hotels, which was used at the InterContinental Bali. 

Smith also helped Potato Head build its own Sustainism lab, which is located on the ground floor of the Katamama; anyone who enters from the street can get a sneak peek into the company’s latest design-related projects, including bricks made from recycled flip-flops and soap dispensers made from bottles that have washed up on the shore. The lab has more ambitious plans: It commissioned a group of international designers—all known for finding innovative ways to turn waste into new materials— to work on the new hotel. Seetal Solanki produced hammocks made from strings of recycled plastic fibers, while Faye Toogood made chairs of local rattan and recycled plastic that looks like rattan. Dirk Vander Kooij created futuristic benches of multicolored slabs of discards from a 3-D-printer studio. Max Lamb collaborated with a nearby ceramics workshop to create stoneware from Balinese volcanic sand. 

From left: The entrance to Katamama, a hotel behind the Potato Head beach club; Bambu Indah, John Hardy’s Bali hotel, where guest quarters are made from historic Javanese homes. Ken Kochey

“Every day we make adjustments to improve our ecosystem,” said Akili. He hired a local environmental consultancy that helps him measure the resort’s annual impact. Akili thinks his businesses are succeeding because his team sees the sustainability mission not as a burden, but an opportunity to create their own dynamic little universe. “It’s not just a hotel,” said Akili. “It’s a blueprint for a village of the future.” And sustainability seems to be good for business. Last year was the Potato Head company’s most profitable yet. 

Despite the benefits of going green, there are still only three hotel brands worldwide with an explicitly stated mission to be sustainable: Potato Head, Alila, and Six Senses, all of which have a presence in Bali. 

On the beach next to Potato Head is Alila Seminyak, a four-story building covered with cascading green plants, which help cool the structure. Since it was founded in 2001, the Alila company has made sustainability a vital part of its operation. To that end, it has focused on smaller hotels in places like Indonesia, India, and China. Alila has four properties in Bali and its use of local materials evokes a strong sense of place. It is also very involved with the community, which starts with its employees, who are mainly Balinese. 

One afternoon I met with Stefan Zich, the hotel manager of Alila Seminyak. He told me about the WhatsApp group the hotel created for its employees at the four properties on the island, so that they could share pictures of themselves working with sustainable solutions. “We keep it fun,” said Zich. He added that the initiative has already helped cut back on spending. “We save about $10,000 a year by using garbage bins instead of plastic garbage bags at Seminyak. We used to buy 240,000 rolls of cling film a year, and now we have cut back to 100.” 

At the Six Senses Uluwatu, in a surfer-friendly area at the southernmost tip of the island, I met the resort’s sustainability manager (every Six Senses resort has one), who told me that the chain, an early architect of the barefoot-luxury trend, had recently announced that all its resorts would go plastic-free by 2022. “We are not tree huggers,” CEO Neil Jacobs told me later over the phone. “But we are leaders in luxury wellness, and in the end, wellness and sustainability complement each other.” Next year, when Six Senses moves into New York City, it will create rooftop gardens and open a branch of its Earth Labs, where both employees and guests can recycle waste materials and make their own natural products. Jeffrey Smith, vice president of sustainability at Six Senses, says that to scale up, the company has realized that it has to remain decentralized. “Each hotel has to find its own ethical local supply chains,” he said. “For example, we wouldn’t want to scale up bottling our own water. Each site should have its own facility. We don’t need to move water around the world. That makes no sense.” 

Early one morning outside of Ubud, in the center of the island, I met up with John and Cynthia Hardy at their small hotel, Bambu Indah, an enchanting and eclectic property of repurposed historic Indonesian houses and sculptural bamboo buildings set on a steep ravine. The success of the Green School has turned their hotel into a destination for individuals and businesses interested in sustainable practices. Next year, parents of Green School alumni will open schools in New Zealand and Mexico. 

Several times a week, the Hardys lead Trash Walks through the surrounding rice fields, picking up litter as they go. That particular morning, they were looking for a new route to take a group of corporate leaders from Aqua Indonesia, one of the country’s biggest producers of bottled water. “We don’t serve a single bottle of Aqua on the premises,” said John with a laugh. While many Western expats blame the Balinese for all the excess littering, John pointed the finger at the companies that make the plastic. 

“It’s the corporations that produce the plastic and profit from it that should be responsible for it,” he said. Hopefully, companies like Aqua Indonesia can start to take a page out of the corporate playbooks of the Akilis and the Potato Heads of the world. As Cynthia explained about Akili, “He’s truly committed.” John added, “The thing about Ronald is that he truly believes that going green is the future. And it is.” Rooms from $200.