Turning the tide on plastic waste in Indonesia

Indonesia still has a plastic waste and pollution problem. The government has put initiatives in place, but action and education at the community level are vital to success.

By John Pennington

Indonesia was ASEAN’s leading plastic polluter, responsible for 200,000 tonnes of the plastic that ended up in the oceans. Four of its rivers made a list of the world’s 20 most polluted. In Bandung, it got so bad the army had to help clean things up.

That was then. The government has since pledged US$1 billion per year to cut waste and clean up its water. It wants a 70% reduction in ocean plastic waste by 2025. It also urged the East Asia Summit to put a regional action plan in place.

Sources: G AdventuresOcean ConservancyPlastic Oceans

Indonesia is finally taking action to cut its plastic waste

Indonesia is making progress. Tonnes of waste has been removed from key areas. In four months last year, three tonnes of rubbish was removed from Bunaken Island.

The government’s data-driven approach to the crisis is yielding results. The data it collects in Jakarta will help replicate tried and tested methods elsewhere in the country. It aims to ensure all plastic is either reused or recycled.

The money is being used to overhaul Indonesia’s landfill industry. The government is working on public education campaigns. It also started testing roads made out of recycled plastic. It pressured plastic manufacturers to change their production methods. It has also enlisted the help of Islamic organisations to get the message across.

Reducing plastic waste across the whole country is a huge challenge

These policies were long overdue. But what is happening in more remote areas, far away from the big cities? Can the government reduce plastic waste throughout a nation of more than 17,000 islands?

This is where community projects and foundations have central roles to play — those such as the Lembeh Foundation, which gives cash rewards to residents who recycle their plastic. Resorts in Lembeh and Siladen are striving to be more eco-friendly and eliminate plastic waste.

Help is at hand from other sources. Taiwanese student Alice Chen at ESMT Berlin business school has, with colleagues from Italy and Ukraine, created a business plan to help the Lembeh Foundation’s plastic waste bank scheme become self-sufficient.

Ocean plastic poses a threat to Indonesia’s marine life.
Photo Credit: q phia/Flickr

She explained to ASEAN Today that the more remote people are, the harder it is to reduce plastic waste. “The fact that this (Lembeh) is an island and remote from the city centre makes the waste bank operation relatively difficult compared to the cities,” she said. “In the cities, it is relatively easy to collect the plastic.”

In remote areas, locals have a huge role to play

Chen has seen first-hand how the local community on Lembeh Island – a tourist hotspot popular with divers – has engaged with plastic recycling. There, divers played an essential role in spotting the waste and then helping do something about it.

“They come to a resort and say, ‘Okay, we saw the ocean is getting polluted, there is a lot of plastic waste, what can we do about it?’ she revealed. “The diving centres give them a bag or sack. When the divers go diving, they bring the plastic waste back to the diving centres so they can recycle them properly.”

It is a team effort. Government policy is the starting point. Corporations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) provide funding and support, enabling local activism and community efforts. Targets are met, and plastic waste drops. It is a huge shift from  2017 when the government was unable to continue a successful trial of charging for plastic bags.

Education and incentivisation drive environmental change

Plastic builds up on a beach in Sulawesi.
Photo Credit: Fabio Achilli/Flickr

Getting plastic waste under control and the drive towards 100% reuse will not come easy. There are several challenges for the government, NGOs, foundations and individuals.

Key to making as much progress as possible is educating people. The world is gradually waking up to the damage plastic is doing to the environment. Many now recognise the threat to Southeast Asia’s biodiversity. Pollution carries an economic threat to the fishing and tourism industries.

“It is definitely the most important thing,” Chen said. “The locals need to be educated about the plastic waste, and then the waste bank is run by the local community.” She added that successfully educating people means it reduces the need for input from the government or NGOs. In this way, plastic waste banks become self-sufficient.

Critics still suggest Indonesia and ASEAN should do more

ASEAN nations are starting to work together to reduce plastic waste in the region’s oceans. The organisation joined the Beat Plastic Pollution movement in June 2018.

In October, Malaysia sparked a global conversation by banning the import of non-recyclable plastic waste. Authorities in the Philippines and Thailand closed popular tourist spots to clean them up.

However, following commitments made at an ASEAN Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment meeting in February, Greenpeace was critical. “There is a lot of talk going on at the moment, but as yet little is being done…it is a growing problem and one that needs immediate action… not just talk,” the NGO’s Southeast Asia spokesperson said.

Chen points out that concrete action depends on many things. People need to know why they are being asked to do something. “In Lembeh, I know the island government wanted to start a waste bank before, but they failed,” she recalled. “They did not tell people why it needed to exist, and they did not provide enough incentives for people to participate.”

China and Japan have committed to working with ASEAN to reduce the environmental and economic threat that plastic ocean waste poses.

In March, Luhut B Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Foreign Affairs, spoke about the goal of enabling his children and grandchildren to play in “pristine waters” around the country. Not so long ago, the idea was far-fetched, perhaps even laughable.

While the Indonesian government still faces significant challenges in applying their 2025 vision, initiatives such as those on Lembeh Island show that with a clear message, support, incentives and community involvement, progress happens. Once one of ASEAN’s worst polluters, Indonesia is slowly becoming a good example for others in the region to follow.