Aug 13, 2020 Last Updated 3:42 AM, Aug 7, 2020

Buried under the weight of a recycling crisis

Published: Mar 31, 2020
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

Shelley Cheng and Gemma Edwards

After China banned the importation of waste in 2018, Indonesia saw a surge in paper scrap imports containing plastic waste. This in turn led to the government bringing in tighter import rules, stricter customs inspections, and the repatriation of hundreds of tonnes of contaminated waste back to their countries of origin.

While some environmentalist groups have welcomed the crackdown on imported paper scrap due to environmental and health concerns, for some Indonesians these changes are seen as a threat to their sources of income and livelihoods.

'If they're going to forbid us from [waste sorting], there must be a solution. The government hasn't provided us jobs,' Bangun resident Heri Masud told Reuters.

By late 2019, Indonesia had returned more than 100 shipping containers of paper scraps back to Australia, after inspections found the containers polluted with household garbage, maggots, medical waste and materials that could be explosive, corrosive or infectious.

Indonesia’s regulations state that the country can accept recyclable scraps with a two percent contamination rate, but inspectors have found up to 30 percent contamination, meaning almost one third of the imported paper scrap is actually waste product.

Infographic: Impact of plastic and hazardous waste in Indonesia. Supplied by Gemma Edwards

Demand and supply

After many Southeast Asian countries introduced laws prohibiting the importation of recyclable plastic, Australia began to send unwanted plastic waste and other non-recyclable items concealed within containers of scrap paper.

The Australian government responded by announcing plans to ban all waste exports including paper, plastics, glass and tyres.

This move is supported by Indonesia's Deputy Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs, Safri Burhanuddin, who said Indonesia also plans to eventually stop all imports from other countries.

‘Indonesia has commitments to reduce the amount of plastic waste leaking into the sea. Most of the unusable plastic waste from Australia and other countries are thrown into the river,’ Safri explained.

Protesters hold placards and a fish made of plastic waste from Australia / Aliansi Zero Waste Indonesia

But there are also consequences to banning the import of plastic waste, which governments and recycling companies still need to address.

‘We need to find solutions for the local people who sort and use this plastic waste for burning’, Burhanuddin stressed.

Impact on environment, health and community

This is very much the case for the small rice-farming village Bangun, a small rice-farming village in East Java, which has become a dumping ground for foreign waste since China’s ban. Bangun has four papermills that pay villagers to sort through the contaminated waste, separating paper from plastic.

After the papermill workers collect the paper, the villagers sell the plastic waste to tofu factories that burn the plastic for fuel. Any leftover plastic waste is dumped or burnt on the banks of the nearby Brantas River. During the rainy season, flooding means that the dumped waste and microplastics can end up flowing into the river. These microplastics are now impacting marine life and polluting the source of drinking water for millions of residents, raising concerns for the health of the local community.

Researchers from Ecoton, an environmental conservation group, examined fish from the Brantas River and found that 80 percent of the fish had microplastics in their stomachs. When people eat these fish, the plastics are transferred to their bodies.

Burning plastic waste for fuel also releases dioxins: a persistent organic pollutant which has been linked to birth defects and disease. These dioxins and other toxic chemicals have polluted the ground water, interfered with food chains, and impacted people’s health.

A report by International Pollutants Elimination Network found scrap exports contaminate Bangun’s food chains in ‘dangerous concentrations’. Free-range chicken eggs in Bangun were found to have dioxin levels 70 times higher than the ‘tolerable’ intake, according to standards set by the European Food Safety Authority.

And the pollution appears to be taking its toll on Bangun's residents. Spokesperson for local environmental non-governmental organisation Aliansi Zero Waste Indonesia, Mbak Daru, explained, ‘I talked to a villager who has a waste collection business, and he said his wife had three miscarriages which could have been caused by the toxic chemicals in the plastic’.

Mbak Daru / Aliansi Zero Waste Indonesia

The villager’s wife was exposed to dioxins, which studies have linked to miscarriages. For the fourth pregnancy, the couple used artificial insemination and his wife moved away from Bangun until their child was born.

‘People here don’t have knowledge on how toxic plastic is when it’s burned so they just burn it every day and live in it,’ Daru said.

Government responsibility

Mbak Daru further explained that most Bangun residents are afraid that speaking out will hamper their livelihoods, as they depend upon waste-sorting for a living.

When paper waste imports began 20 years ago, most Bangun residents sold their farms to work as waste collectors for paper mills. Now many are not only dependent on waste sorting, but also prefer having a stable, daily source of income, as opposed to waiting for harvest seasons which are less predictable.

‘It’s the government’s obligation to help residents to transition to a different source of income, and they need help from exporting countries who cause these problems in Bangun,’ Daru said.

Plastic waste dump in Bangun village / Aliansi Zero Waste Indonesia

‘The Indonesian Government needs to clean up Bangun’s environment so their soil can be fertile again, and the residents can grow barley and corn again.

‘We need government and also international assistance because this problem is caused by imported waste from developed countries to this village,’ Daru said.

Like Aliansi Zero Waste, Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Murharram Atha Rasyadi, calls on the government to adopt a more proactive response to waste management. Checking the containers when they arrive is a good start to addressing the problem of dumping dirty waste, but the government also needs ‘active policies, not only to increase monitoring and checking, but to not import waste at all’, he said. ‘Our government needs to take a stronger position.’

Shelley Cheng (shelley.cheng@connect.qut.edu.au) is a law and journalism student at Queensland University of Technology. Gemma Edwards (gemma.edwards@connect.qut.edu.au) is a journalism student at Queensland University of Technology and travelled to Indonesia with the support of the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Mobility program.

Inside Indonesia 139: Jan-Mar 2020

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