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A Frame on the Indonesian Plastic Pollution

Indonesia is the largest archipelagic state in the world, with more than 17.000 islands, 6 million square km of waters and more than 91.000 km of coastal lines. It harbors 75% of all known marine life, 23 % of global mangroves and 30.000 square km of seagrass. However, the country also ranks as the second in the world (behind China) for dumping plastic into the sea. From 8 million tons of plastic that is being dumped into oceans worldwide each year, 16 percent comes from Indonesia. According to the Ministry for Maritime Affairs, Indonesians consume a million plastic bags per minute. In one year, the country alone has generated 3.2 million tons of plastic waste, of which 1.29 million ended up in the oceans.

What exactly is plastic?

Plastic is a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers, easily molded when hot, and sturdy and durable when cooled. The necessary natural resources needed to manufacture plastic are fossil feedstocks, water and energy. The basic raw materials for plastics come mostly from hydrocarbons available in petroleum and natural gas. Around 1850, the first synthetic plastic was produced in the laboratory of the England metallurgist and inventor Alexander Parkes. It was called Parkesine which was made by a combination of organic materials found in cellulose (the major component of plant cell walls), treated with nitric acid as a solvent. As stated by the United Nations Environmental Commission, global plastic consumption has gone from 5.5 million tons in the 1950s to 110 million tons in 2009.

Plastic Pollution and its Impacts

Marine Debris is defined as “any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment.” Three quarters of all marine debris is plastic. Plastic Pollution is the accumulation of plastic products in the environment* that adversely affects wildlife, its habitat and humans. It causes a lot of ecological and human health impacts. When items like plastic bags break down, they soak up and release toxins that then contaminate soil and water, as well as harming animals that ingest plastic fragments. These chemicals are extremely dangerous and toxic and pose a serious threat to our health with symptoms including endocrine disruption and cancer causing mutations. Organisms then ingest these harmful chemicals, which pass through the food chain, eventually onto our meals through the process of biological magnification.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – Indonesia makes a change!

However, some change-actions have been developed in Indonesia. On July 7th, 2017, Indonesia President Joko Widodo pledged in the G20 Summit in Germany “to devote $1 billion per year to reduce Indonesia´s plastic and other marine waste by 70 percent in 2025”. To achieve this, Indonesia has established a National Ocean Policywhich includes the “National Plan of Action on Marine Plastic Debris Management”** for the period or 2017-2025. This plan has 4 pillars:

  • Improving Stakeholders awareness
  • Terrestrial and Coastal plastic waste management
  • Marine debris management and
  • Funding mechanism with institutional supports.

It also contains the following 5 strategic programs: International, National, local government, Industrial sector and Research with development. The final goals are a better managed plastic waste by the 3 R: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

Several scientists, environmental activist, leaders and conservationist have already joined meaningful meetings in order to find solutions together. Some of these meetings have been: The international symposium on marine plastic debris (August 9-10/ 2017, Makassar), The alliance for Marine plastic solution forum (September 4-5/2017, Bali), the Indonesian Youth Marine Debris Summit (October 28-29, Jakarta), The G2- high level conference on Marine Litter (Bremen, May 30-1st June), among others. Also, representatives of Ministries and NGOs (as Trash Hero and One Island One Voice in Bali) had organized clean ups in several places of Indonesia.

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Photo by ROLE Foundation Bali

Plastic Roads and Waste Banks

Plastic roads and waste banks have been the most stand out strategic meaningful programs so far. The plastic roads, which incorporate melted discarded plastic into road-building material as tar, are promoted as a novel waste-disposal method that also produces cheaper and more durable roads than conventional materials. This concept originally comes from India. Udayana University already lay a 700-meter plastic-tar road in its campus in Bali.*** Although this method still needs more research about its potential impacts to the environment, they protrude as a possible solution for disposing tons of plastic that would otherwise sit in landfills or clog waterways.

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A waste bank**** is a collection point for trash, in which residents can drop their pre-sorted household waste in return for cash. The waste is divided into organic and non-organic items. Organic waste gets turned into compost, while non-organic waste is sent to recycling factories and divided into these categories: plastic, paper, bottles and metal. Garbage banks give an ecological solution and are also profitable for the community. This idea was born in Thailand and has been implemented in several places of Indonesia such as Makassar, Surabaya, Depok or Bali. In Bali, several waste banks and even a Plastic Waste ATM Machine have already been created. In Depok, the city administration decided to concentrate its resources on waste segregation by creating a system called Partai Ember 5 (Bucket Party), were the recollection company refused to pick up the waste if residents failed to segregate it.

Why Recycling? Circular Economy

There are still several challenges to deal with, however, several organizations in Bali are already promoting programs that offer solutions to the Waste Management. NGOs as Klin, Eco-Bali Recycling, Temesi Recycling, R.O.L.E. foundation, gringgo app, Indonesian Waste Platform, among others, are promoting initiatives as “Zero waste”, recycling collection services or environmental education. At this stage, incineration is not only an option that a lot of Indonesians choose to dispose their garbage. It is actually their only way as many remote villages don’t have garbage pick ups yet. However, burning trash causes environmental damage by the release of toxic gases into the atmosphere. Thus, recycling is the most viable alternative in getting back the plastics for reuse. As petroleum prices increase it becomes more profitable to recycle than to produce plastics from raw materials. In a circular economy, we rethink the whole approach – from how we produce and consume to the way we manage waste, turning it back into raw materials ready to be used again.

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The moment is now!

On February 21st in 2005, 143 people died buried under a waste avalanche, known as the Bandung’s Leuwigajah dumpsite disaster****** in West Java. If we don’t develop actions now, tragedies like this may happen again. It is important to motivate people and companies to change to a culture of recycling. Reducing waste is more efficient than clearing it up. Prevention is cost-effective and better for the environment and the economy.

It’s very important to raise awareness about waste and to promote a change of behavior patterns. We are in serious need of policies that make plastic expensive and require companies to recycle the plastic waste their products create. In addition, our social systems needs regulations that encourage and enforce residents to separate their household waste. We can help by our individual actions in the different roles of society: Government and industries should organize more clean-up actions and promote the circular economy*******, reduce waste and improve product design. Citizens should put litter in bins, increase recycling at home, choose reusable products and help clean up existing pollution. Change is needed and the moment is now!