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Stepping up the battle against marine plastic pollution — The case of Indonesia by Layla Moccia

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

With four of the world’s top 20 polluting rivers belonging to Indonesia, the plastic waste problem has become dire. In 2018 the national army itself was deployed to collect plastic. The popular holiday destinations Bali and Sumatra, well known for pristine waters and awe-inspiring natural beauty, are now too covered in plastic.

In light of the evident disruption created by the mounting piles of plastic waste, as well as the compelling threat posed to tourism, Indonesia has pledged to reduce marine plastic debris by 70% by 2025. The plans are to be made actionable through partnerships with the World Economic Forum hosted organisation, Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), and with local businesses and communities.

Innovating recyclable plastic materials, substituting materials, reducing over-packaging and increasing recycling rates, are in consideration. For each solution, a model will be created by SYSTEMIQ and PEW Charitable Trust to estimate the required investment, timeline and associated environmental footprint. Thus far, the five-months data research effort by SYSTEMIQ in Bali, has revealed 87% of locals as in favour of reducing, sorting and recycling waste. In addition to only 48% of waste as being currently responsibly managed via landfills or recycling. However, the government’s recent announcement of plans to build 12 incinerators by 2022 have raised concerns amongst environmental groups. Several have accused the proposals as being short-sighted measures designed to prioritise investors through ‘big capital and centralistic projects’. There is also the potential for additional air pollution created by incinerators in a country of already poor air quality. Though the developer has vowed to operate the plant in compliance with European Union standard emission levels.


A shoreline in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photo: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)

Incinerators may very well have their place in Indonesia’s plans to confront the country’s overwhelmingly high levels of plastic. As the McGill Office for Science and Society notes, whether or not incinerators are the right form of waste management for a country should be examined on a case by case basis. The answer can depend on anything from the location, the very incinerator in question to the type and level of waste. However, the over-arching aim for Indonesia should not deviate too far from reducing consumer plastic consumption. With a population of 264 million the government cannot rely solely on mitigation strategies such as incinerators.

Bali for instance, has recently won a court battle allowing the island to ban single-use plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam. With more than 50% of the island’s economy relying on tourism, Bali cannot afford to have the island and surrounding seas be awash with plastic.

In the city of Surabaya, commuters can ride a red city bus by dropping off plastic bottles at terminals or directly ‘paying’ a fare with bottles that are then recycled. The scheme introduced only in in April last year, has been immensely popular amongst the locals.

Evoware, an Indonesian start-up, has designed food packaging made from a seaweed-based material that can then be dissolved and eaten. Although still in the product testing phase and thus selling in small quantities, the venture has gained significant interest from both the Indonesian government and international organisations.

New robust management in Indonesia’s municipal waste collection, can potentially result in a trade surplus through the exporting of both domestic and imported recycled plastic in the form of pellets, chips and as material for use in road construction. Funding can be gained through the taxation of plastic goods. This would have positive repercussions not only for the country’s waste management plans but also in allowing it to meet its Nationally Determined Contributions element of the Paris Climate Agreement. Funds from taxation can also be used to support start-up companies such as Evoware to grow.

The waste management practice Indonesia eventually decides to pursue may very well differ between islands, and perhaps even communities. For if the environmental goals are to be met, (and in doing so a significant portion of the economy sustained), solutions must reflect each physical and socio-economic profile as part of a long-term effort towards sustainability

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