Indonesia battles against the plastic tide

Indonesia battles against the plastic tide

A plastic tide in Indonesia. The poor waste management of this synthetic material is a fundamental concern, not only for governments but for civil society, which is actively working to solve the problem.

(Ana Salvá)

Every year, eight million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean. About 90 per cent of coral reefs will have disappeared by 2050. It is estimated that by the same year toxic waste will outweigh total fish stocks on the planet, according to a 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum.

Indonesia is one of the principal contributors to the problem. This vast country, of more than 17,000 islands, has the dubious honour of being responsible for much of the plastic in our seas, the world’s second biggest polluter after China. About 3.2 million tonnes of plastic polluted Indonesia’s seas in 2010, according to [research by Jenna Jambeck, published in Science magazine in 2015.

Against this background, at the beginning of June this year, a lunch was held at the office of the Permanent Mission of Indonesia to the UN with representatives of ten countries from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in New York to discuss the issue.

The Minister for the Coordination of Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, asked for cooperation to help reduce waste which, he explained, “has caused losses of 1,200 million dollars (about 1,072 million euros) in the fishing, maritime and tourism sectors, and the insurance industry.”

Indonesia is unusual in that, as a country made up of thousands of islands, much of the population lives along the banks of major rivers or close to the ocean. Nicholas Mallos, director of the organisation Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas programme, explains to Equal Times that Indonesia is also prone to very heavy rains, typhoons and floods.

Therefore, in addition to voluntary or involuntary leaks by individuals or waste transporters, “when there is a natural disaster or strong waves in a storm” he says, they “add to the volume of plastic waste entering the marine environment”.

Mallos explains that the seas are being choked by a tide of plastic which is also an “undesired consequence of rapid development”. With 250 million inhabitants, Indonesia is furthermore the fourth most populated country on the planet, and just like consumers in other parts of the world, as Indonesians see their income rise their use of products that come in plastic boxes, bottles and other containers rises, but they don’t yet have appropriate infrastructure to manage all that waste.

Large pieces of plastic are turned by the effects of the sun into tiny pieces of less than five millimetres, “micro plastics” which are now present at virtually every level of the marine ecosystem. This waste is harmful not only for birds and fish, but also for ourselves, as the food chain becomes contaminated.

In the meeting with the ASEAN representatives, Pandjaitan concludes that the problem could become a “disaster” if immediate action is not taken. Part of the picture that was sketched out is: unemployment, a direct cause of the losses due to pollution, “can lead to poverty, and the social problems arising from this may, eventually, lead to radicalism and terrorism”.

To tackle the situation, he said, Indonesia is cooperating with the World Bank and Denmark to carry out research in 15 locations in Indonesia to find out where all the waste comes from. The Asian country is also working with the United States on research into fish populations which, it is suspected, are consuming the plastic.

The badly managed waste of this synthetic material is a fundamental concern, not only for governments but also for civil society which is working actively to solve this problem in Indonesia and beyond, says Mallos. In 2016, for example, the government imposed payment for plastic bags for a trial period of six months in 23 Indonesian cities, following social pressure arising from the Bye bye plastic bags initiative led by two school girls, Melati, 16, and Isabel, 14.

These activists from the Green School on the island of Bali, inspired by people such as Mahatma Gandhi, wondered how they could help while they were still just school girls, and they focused their attention on the banning of polyethylene bags in Ruanda in 2008.

The girls explained to Equal Times that in some cases, after the government’s campaign to impose payment for plastic bags, their use was reduced “by nearly 40 per cent”, and they continue to press for their complete elimination. Tuti Hendrawati, director of the Ministry for the Environment and Forestry’s Dangerous Waste programme, has promised that the government will repeat the measure, but there is no definite date yet.

Giving up using plastic completely is not easy. In Indonesia there is a serious lack of awareness about waste, despite the introduction of an education programme in the curriculum. The biologist Kevin Kumala is another Indonesian who has decided to take measures to care for the environment.

The entrepreneur explains that it is already “too late” to change our habits and ensure that people “use plastic less or recycle more”. The only possible solution, he believes, is to “replace the bags made from petroleum” which can take up to 300 years to biodegrade.

Kumala has found a possible solution in the starch from yucca, a plant endemic to Indonesia that is easy to find in large quantities and does not cost a lot to produce. In 2014 he and his business associate Daniel Rosenqvist created the company Avani ECO. This produces, amongst others, disposable containers made from sugar cane and drinking straws made from maize starch that do not leave any toxic waste.

The price of each yucca bag is 0.5 dollar cents (0.4 euro cents, more than double the cost of a normal plastic bag, but the difference is that they convert to compost in less than 100 days, in contrast to the hundreds of years it would take for a plastic bag. If they accidentally end up in the sea, says Kumala, not only will they not be harmful to fish, but they will turn into “food for them”.

After the meeting with the ASEAN leaders, minister Pandjaitan said that efforts to reduce the negative effects of marine pollution on the environment could contribute to economic growth and serve as a concrete example of sustainable development.

He also said that he hoped for “increased cooperation” at the regional level “to tackle this critical issue”. Much remains to be done to achieve Indonesia’s ambitious target of reducing marine pollution by 70 per cent by 2025.

This article has been translated from Spanish.