Indonesia facing a marine plastic “emergency”
[By Nabiha Shahab]
The UN has called marine plastic pollution a “slow-motion disaster”, and a recent study found Indonesia to be the second largest contributor after China. The overconsumption of single-use plastic and poor waste management are largely to blame.
Indonesia has some of the most biodiverse and important coral reef systems in the world. But, over the past decades, these habitats have faced a number of challenges, including plastic pollution.
According to the UN, around eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean each year. Indonesia supplies more than 600,000 tonnes, estimates the Indonesian Institute of Science.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. The discarded masks and other protective gear have added a lot more waste to the leaking country’s waste management system.
The coasts of Indonesia are home to many densely populated communities. Plastic waste is ubiquitous and cross-border, with ocean currents carrying it in multiple directions, including to uninhabited islands.
Settlement without results
In 2017, Indonesia pledged to reduce marine plastic debris by up to 70% by 2025 in a national action plan. The government enacted new waste management legislation in 2018. Two years later, it banned single-use plastic from convenience stores. But the policy is not as strict in traditional markets, where plastic bags are still widely used.
Novrizal Tahar, director of solid waste management at the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said: “Marine plastic litter in Indonesia has already been reduced by more than 15% between 2018 and 2020”, citing a report no published produced by his office.
There is no shortage of regulations on waste management in Indonesia and in particular on marine plastic, Tahar told a UNDP webinar on ending plastic pollution: “First, we are taking the regulatory approach. Almost all of our regulations cover the problem from upstream to downstream … At the same time, we are increasing the capacity of local authority services and waste treatment, ”he said.
Consumers lack support
But government efforts appear insufficient to stem the problem.
Muharram Atha Rasyadi, activist for Greenpeace Indonesia, said: “Our waste management system is still not based on segregation. This is the basic collection-transport-disposal method, ”he said. “While there are movements to deal with waste at home, such as through composting, these are mostly independent community initiatives,” said Rasyadi.
Single-use plastic bags. Indonesians rely heavily on these sachets for products such as shampoo and ground coffee. (Image: Landscape Indonesia)
People are still very dependent on single-use plastics. Many consumer goods are packaged in small, single-use sachets. The sachet products, including shampoo, detergents and coffee, target the middle to lower classes, who cannot afford to buy these small amounts on a daily basis, Rasyadi said.
Many pouches include layers of different types of plastic, which gives them a low market value. “Few recyclers work with them. Most end up in landfills or dump into the ocean, ”said Rasyadi.
Jakarta’s giant garbage heap
The capital of Indonesia has 10.5 million inhabitants. Estimates suggest that the amount of waste sent to landfill from Jakarta increased from 6,645 tonnes per day in 2017 to 7,703 tonnes in 2019.
The city dumps most of its waste at a landfill in Bantargebang, an area about 25 kilometers away. Operated since 1986, the 110 hectare site quickly fills with a pile of waste that can reach 40 meters high. The city governor gave the impression that the problem would start to be addressed in 2016 when he signed an executive order authorizing a company to build intermediate processing facilities. The idea was to incinerate, recycle or compost waste at several sites in the city. Progress has been slow.
Waste sent to Bantargebang remains mixed and unsorted. Rasyadi said: “Up to 70% is organic waste. For a city as big as Jakarta, the government has not provided the infrastructure to handle all this waste. There are a few private initiatives, but they are all on their own to find out. “
Orange troops in an impossible war
Officially, the municipality hires 40 to 70 cleaning agents per district in Jakarta. That’s over 18,000 for the whole city. Named after the distinctive orange vests they wear, the Orange troops include street sweepers, canal cleaners, and garbage collectors. But they cannot manage the quantities of waste presented to them.
To increase the team’s capacity, the city hires freelance workers like Togar Sinaga.
Garbage collector Togar Sinaga supplements his meager income by selecting and selling recyclable materials such as these water bottles (Image: Nabiha Shahab / China Dialogue)
Sinaga, 47, walks around collecting garbage from houses in a neighborhood in eastern Jakarta. As a contract garbage collector, he does not receive a monthly salary. Rather, its main income comes from the collection of household waste in a temporary landfill. He earns about US $ 0.70 for each cart, plus small tips from the owners. He complements that by separating and selling recyclable materials like cardboard boxes, cans and plastic water bottles, for which he earns an extra $ 14 per week.
Innovations and solutions
Improved logistics and a larger workforce alone will not solve the country’s plastic waste problem. Indonesia is therefore now placing some of its hopes in innovative solutions.
The government, together with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Norwegian government, has launched a Southeast Asian-wide competition to help.
The first winner of the Ending Plastic Pollution innovation challenge was Nguyen Vo from Vietnam. She developed a grass-based straw, with the stated goal of replacing 5 billion plastic straws by 2025. The competition prize money has helped her increase her production, she said. declared.
Other start-ups have started turning plastic into fuel and other products. Landscape Indonesia, a social enterprise based in Jakarta, is exploring the latter option. “Imagine if we could convert 1.5 million tonnes of plastic waste into diesel equivalent fuel every year,” CEO Agus Sari said. The technology could be used for all types of plastics, including low-value bagged packaging, added Agus Sari.
But Rasyadi said producing less waste was more important than reuse and recycling. “We don’t support the concept of converting plastic to fuel, or plastic to energy, because it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. People would think it’s okay to use plastic if it can be converted into energy. We use a lot of plastic unnecessarily… we can start by changing our behavior and using less, ”he said.
This article is published in partnership with the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center. It appears here courtesy of China Dialogue Ocean and can be found in its original form here.
Nabiha Shahab is a freelance writer and communications specialist based in Indonesia. She has worked in both media and media campaigns with environmental NGOs since 1997. She holds an MA in Environmental Management from the University of Nottingham.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.