Oct 22, 2019 Last Updated 4:14 AM, Oct 17, 2019

The waste emergency

Published: Jun 11, 2019

Rolf Hajek

Ever since pictures and videos of a polluted ocean at Nusa Lembongan in Bali went viral, Indonesia’s role as an ocean polluter has been in the global spotlight. As the world’s fourth most populous country, it is important for this one-trillion-dollar economy (A$1.4 trillion) to tackle the waste that it accumulates on a daily basis and which, with increasing prosperity, continues to accumulate faster. Overall, the country has implemented quite an extensive legal framework, but enforcement is weak. Reducing the yearly 64 million tons of waste will need a great deal of work. It is indeed a waste emergency.

The ambitious Presidential Regulation No.97/2017, A Roadmap Towards 2025, calls for a 30 per cent waste reduction and for a maximum of 30 per cent of the country’s waste to end up in landfill. Numbers vary, but currently Jakarta leads with a recycling rate of a meagre 7.5 per cent, while other areas average at 2 to 3 per cent. Admittedly, with Indonesia being an archipelago, the solution for Bali, for instance, would have to be different from Jakarta in Java or Medan in Sumatra.

The Indonesian government was set to release new a regulation applying ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR) by the end of 2018, but delayed the process due to the 2019 presidential elections. In the meantime, regional governments are pushing ahead with their own legislation. On 24 December 2018 Bali’s governor, Wayan Koster, announced a ban on single-use plastic by the middle of 2019. Bogor to the south of Jakarta already took this step in early December 2018 whereas the Jakarta administration is still drafting a regulation to ban single-use plastic bags. At the same time, the Indonesian Plastic Industry Association (Inaplas) is pushing regional governments to review and water down regulations.

Government and producer responsibility

Looking at other countries’ approaches, a spreading of responsibility across the complete chain of waste management seems the best the way forward. A combination of waste reduction, 100 per cent waste collection, enhancing general recycling initiatives and utilising waste-to-energy solutions will all have to play a role in Indonesia. Across the country, there is also significant room for improvement in community awareness of this issue and in local capacity for waste management.

EPR is often seen as a magic solution, but these efforts need to be concerted and streamlined in order to achieve the desired impact. Indonesia has a general EPR policy in place, but more specialist management and strategic planning are still very much needed.

One of Indonesia’s iconic beverage producers, SOSRO, for many years relied on its own glass bottle deposit system but was forced by other market players to move towards plastic or PET. The group’s president director Soegiharto Sosrodjojo explains: ‘We are not proud of selling this volume of PET .... We want to tell the market that glass bottles or cans are actually better than plastic in many ways, for safety, taste, preservation or the environment, but in terms of convenience it is difficult to beat PET. The question is, can you throw it away responsibly?’

This is indeed a salient question, and one that many more citizens need to be considering. Soegiharto wants to go even further: ‘We are ready to speak about the environment, but we cannot do it all on our own. This sort of movement has to be supported by big organisations and big players, and the government has to be 100 per cent behind this.’ This is a position seen worldwide, with the general view being that government needs to regulate and guide the process.

New EPR regulation overdue

The Indonesian government is aware of the need to improve regulation and has partnered with Denmark, Norway and the World Bank to assess and alleviate the main bottlenecks currently preventing it from curbing ocean pollution. But it remains to be seen what kind of EPR regulation Indonesia will come up and how extensive it will be. Done well, EPR has the power to shift the focus from waste processing to the entire lifecycle of a product, which is imperative in a circular economy.

Global conglomerates such as Coca Cola, Nestle and Danone are quick to tout their own solutions, but they have non-binding recycling commitments and long lead times. In Indonesia they have formed the powerful alliance known as PRAISE (Packaging and Recycling Association for Indonesia Sustainable Environment). Considering what each company has achieved over their decades in the country, it is difficult to see how these main distributors of plastics are now going to become the environment’s saviours.

Bo Eide @Flickr

Grassroots and innovation

Public awareness is crucial in a country as vast as Indonesia. Tiza Mafira is a lawyer and director of Gerakan Diet Kantong Plastik Indonesia (the Indonesian Plastic Bag Diet Movement, GIDKP), who has been campaigning against single-use plastic bags since 2013. She has done a lot to change general attitudes, and to bring Indonesia closer to finally limiting their use. She is also featured prominently in a forthcoming documentary The Story of Plastic.

Isabel and Melati, the sisters who founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags when they were just 13 and 15 years old, are largely the reason for Bali’s ban on single-use plastic. They have given several Ted talks, met with government leaders and have held more than 230 presentations worldwide. The movement they began has now expanded to 25 teams globally. They featured on the Forbes’ 2017 Top 10 Most Inspiring Women list.

Beyond awareness, however, we are also seeing practical Indonesian solutions, such as ETAPAS, an online app-based waste trading platform with major potential. The app’s president director Reza Bath acknowledges that the government cannot do everything alone:

‘Indonesia is struggling to implement its three Rs, the reduce, reuse and recycle system, because it is so difficult to find someone willing to further the system on a greater scale. This is why we came up with the idea to build an e-trading platform – to make things easier whilst avoiding destroying the existing system and livelihoods it supports.’

Indeed, there are many thousands of people in Indonesia dependent on trash collection, including scavengers, collectors, sellers and re-sellers, all before the materials reach their recycling destination. When looking at numbers, the current process is not efficient, but this doesn't mean you have to reinvent it to bring about change.

‘Ideally,’ Reza says, ‘ETAPAS can enhance existing structures, stabilising quality and pricing for the collectors and offer a steady supply for the recycling companies. We very much welcome the new EPR regulations. We see them as enabling us to form meaningful partnerships with producers, supporting their waste initiatives.’

In the future ETAPAS will look further toward collaborating with government and NGOs for meaningful engagement of the public, through training and awareness campaigns.

Setting the tone

Indonesia’s upcoming EPR legislation will be crucial in determining the road the country will take from here. With growing awareness of the waste problem, we are now at an ideal moment where dedicated governments can push through effective legislation that forces producers to take responsibility for the waste they create. In the mean time we hope to see more grassroots developments and innovative ideas to move Indonesia forward, especially in the area of waste management and recycling.

Rolf Hajek (rhajek@dreyer-media.com) is a senior director at Dreyer-Media, a UAE based agency that produces country investment reports worldwide which are published in major media outlets in the US, China and elsewhere.

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