The complexity of plastic waste in Indonesia
This article is part of a mini-series featuring the work of journalism students from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) who travelled to Indonesia in November 2019 as part of the Australian government's New Colombo Plan Mobility scheme
Grace Desoe, Mathew Perry and Yi Peng
Plastic waste is a significant environmental issue in Indonesia, deeply impacting the whole country. Indonesia is second only to China as the world’s largest contributor to ocean plastic pollution. Four of its rivers – Brantas, Solo, Serayu and Progo – are on a list of the world’s dirtiest rivers, carrying the most waste into our oceans.
A 2016 World Economic Forum report estimated there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Experts agree that a global shift toward a ‘circular economy’ is needed; one that aims to eliminate waste and encourages continual use and re-use of resources.
In September 2018 the Indonesian government announced its plan to be on the front lines of this global shift towards circular models of waste management and to reduce plastic marine debris by 70 percent by 2025.
Deputy for the Coordination of Human Resources, Science and Technology and Maritime Culture Safri Burhanuddin supports this approach, explaining, ‘There is a big opportunity for all communities in Indonesia to implement circular strategies’.
‘If we collect waste properly, we can reuse 60 to 70 per cent of it and it becomes a simple economy,’ he said.
Currently, it is impossible to reuse all waste simply because a large proportion is contaminated waste. In July 2019, Indonesia returned 49 containers containing toxic waste to their home countries including Australia and the United States.
Solutions, or more problems?
Most plastic in Indonesia is non-recyclable and it usually ends up in landfill, but a solution for non-recyclable waste that continues to have government support is the option of burning it to produce energy. According to a February 2019 statement from the Energy Ministry, the government plans to have 12 waste-to-energy plants operating by 2022, burning 16,000 tons of waste every day.
Aliansi Zero Waste is an environmental NGO that advocates for better waste management and promotes reducing, reusing and recycling waste. Mbak Daru, spokesperson for Aliansi Zero Waste Indonesia argues that government proposals to turn waste to energy are not in keeping with the concept of the circular economy.
‘When we burn plastic it’s gone, so it cannot be recycled over and over again. It’s against the real circular economy principle.
‘We have to try as much to give high priority in a reduction of plastic production [and] increase the capacity of recycling by promoting waste segregation by source,’ she said.
Investing in waste
While sustainability initiatives including plastic collection, recycling plastic to make furniture and decorations for example, are spreading through local communities, coordination of these activities faces challenges due not only to the scale of the problem, but also the politics around waste management.
With ocean plastics gathering global attention, foreign investment in waste has grown in recent times. In 2017 Indonesia received a US$11.8 billion trust fund from Denmark to address marine waste. This has been accompanied by an influx of foreign eco-warriors coming to Indonesia with their sights set on sustainable waste management.
United Kingdom-based company Ministry of Waste has been working to establish a pilot project focusing on island circular economy on Nusa Penida, a diving and eco-tourism hub off Bali’s coast.
The company’s strategic plan involves establishing waste management infrastructure in more than 70 locations throughout Indonesia, which involves taking on responsibility for an area’s waste management services and ensuring materials are separated appropriately to regain value as raw input for production.
‘Part of our strategy is to constantly find innovative methods to recycle or re-use usually hard-to-recycle types of waste. This enables us to give more value to a bigger percentage of waste entering our facilities - from Tetrapak packaging to tyres and diapers,’ CEO and founder of Ministry of Waste, Samanta Skrivere explained. If the project proves successful, Skrivere hopes that similar initiatives can be rolled out across Indonesia as well as to other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Though there are a growing number of both local and international organisations like Ministry of Waste, their effectiveness is limited unless they involve strong collaboration and coordination said Project Coordinator at Greeneration Foundation, an NGO focusing on changing human behavior to implement sustainable consumption and production, Fahrian (Ryan) Yovantra.
‘There are a number of actions and initiatives that have been done by local NGOs, communities and government, but they are running individually, they are running independently, they are not synergised among one another… There is no centralised platform or law governing circular economy.’
For an initiative to be effective, all levels of the community need to be consistently engaged and given funding to enable them to change their consumer behaviour. In short, he added, there needs to be strong commitment, collaboration and legal reform.
Turning the tide
Some local governments are attempting to turn the tide, such as in Bali, where single use plastic items such as bags, straws and styrofoam were banned in July 2019. In communities that still rely heavily on plastic, this goal is much harder to reach especially in isolated areas and communities where burning plastic is a primary source of energy. In these situations, Ryan believes that to shift the attitudes about plastic use there needs to be top-down change from government and corporations.
‘The challenges rely on the system in supporting that ecosystem. Shifting their behaviour, the change should not rely on the user but the top level, the producer of the plastic waste,’ he said.
Daru agreed. ‘We need companies to be held accountable for the plastic waste they produce, especially big, global companies like Unilever, BNG, Nestle, multinational corporations.
‘If they say they need to provide small packages or sachets to the poor people, they should also consider how the people will manage that waste. Do they have the capacity to treat their waste? If they don’t, the company should not provide single waste packaging to that community,’ she said.
Despite these barriers, Ryan has a positive outlook on the future of the circular economy in Indonesia.
‘But there needs to be a stronger commitment from government...Firstly, [we need to] increase the education on circular economy... we need strong leadership and committed leadership [and] we need a governing law on circular economy.’
Grace Desoe (email@example.com), Mathew Perry and Yi Peng, journalism students at Queensland University of Technology travelled to Indonesia with the support of the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Mobility Scheme.