By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita

Indonesia, the second-largest contributor of plastic waste to the world’s waters after China, has pledged US$1 billion per year to attempt to reduce the junk in its waters by 70 percent by 2025, according to Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairsi.

It is not surprising that Jakarta has made such a decision, given that the issue of plastic waste has a tremendous, deleterious impact on the environment and tourism. An estimated 1.3 million tonnes of plastic waste are tossed annually into Indonesia’s seawaters, littering the ocean and increasing the risk that marine animals will trapped in the stuff. In the shallow waters of Indonesia, coral reefs are littered with plastics, with fishermen witnessing growing cases of fishes entangled in plastic bags and other trash.

Exposed to sunlight, continuously scorched by waves and tides, the plastics degrade into tiny particles or microplastics that are ingested by marine life. The ratio of plankton to plastic in the ocean is reportedly at 1:2 globally. Given current rates of dumping into the world’s waters, plastic is predicted to outweigh all sea life by 2050. These data should provide a warning to the Indonesian government that the declining water quality and damaged coral ecosystem are immediate threats that must be resolved.

Impact on Tourism Industry

The problem of waste in Indonesia is also affecting the tourism industry. The most notable example is in Bali, the country’s premier tourism destination by far. Although the island boasts second-to-none exoticism in culture and spirituality, it is the white pearl sands that span across the golden beaches that draw close to 5 million tourists each year. Its transcendent diving spots, rich with coral reefs, are the epicenter of marine biodiversity that makes TripAdvisors identify Denpasar as the greatest tourism destination on earth.  But the beaches of the Kuta tourism mecca are daily littered with flip-flops, plastic bottles, various kinds of packaging and other plastic trash.

However, 10,725 tons of plastic waste per day are going into Bali’s waters according to local media, making it one of country’s biggest polluters. During the rainy season, the piles of rubbish and waste washed up on the shore compel governments and local communities to regularly organize large-scale beach cleanups using heavy machinery.

As society has grown richer, people are throwing away more and more trash. Recycling so far is an infant industry, if it exists at all. In 2016, a spate of reports said the country faces a waste management crisis, with not enough garbage trucks to pick up Jakarta’s trash, and not enough landfill to put it in if there were.

Every day in Jakarta, according to a 2016 Reuters study, 10 million residents generate enough trash to fill several football fields. A landfill on the edge of Jakarta receives more than 6,000 tonnes of trash per day from the city but its waste treatment facilities are struggling to keep pace, resulting in mountains of garbage that pose environmental and health risks.

Solutions

Government first must raise awareness concerning the importance of managing detritus effectively, ideally through various platforms, especially the Internet and social media. As reported elsewhere, Indonesians are very active on social media, ranked one of the highest social media users in the world. That provides the government with a medium to transform citizen perspectives on what they thoughtlessly throw away.

So far, 17 countries across the world have begun to charge for plastic bags in supermarkets and other retail outlets or – as in the Philippines – to phase out single-use bags altogether. Bangladesh was the first to do so in 2002. Since then, Rwanda, China, Taiwan, Macedonia and Kenya have phased them out as well. Others in western Europe impose a fee per bag. Jurisdictions in North America, Australia, the United Kingdom and Myanmar have enacted such fees.

Analysts say the government should support the development of movements that pay attention to the issue of plastic waste and aim to play a more effective role in reducing it. Such movements have been increasing in recent years. Banksampah.id, for example, is aimed to increase awareness among people that household wastes could have economic value. The movement has branches across Indonesia for waste collection and management. As with commercial banks, users open accounts with their local branches of Bank Sampah. Periodically, they make deposits with their household waste, which is weighed and assigned monetary value. 

Other initiatives on managing waste similar to Bank Sampah’s have taken place elsewhere and in different ways, which could help ameliorate the waste problem.

The government is also working on an initiative to convert plastic waste into asphalt road materials. A pilot project constructed 700 meters of road using plastic waste at Universitas Udayana in Bali in July. The materials are regarded as cheaper and more durable than the common materials used before. Building on the success of the pilot project, the government is planning to implement similar programs in other provinces.

That is regarded as strategic by many because 14 percent of the country’s waste is comprised of plastics, the amount of which is expected to reach almost 10 million tonnes by 2019. With every kilometer of road needing 2.5 to 5 tonnes of plastic, plastic waste could be used to pave 190,000 kilometers of road.

Indonesia is currently implementing many construction projects across the country, especially for the development of its eastern regions. Such innovation could be a material-saving solution that could be used for the construction of hundreds of kilometers of trans-Papua and trans-Sumatera highways.

It is obvious that concrete efforts by both the government and the people need to be taken massively and immediately. If not, being the second largest plastic waste contributor is likely to destroy some of the world’s richest marine biodiversity. It has already begun to happen in Bali’s waters.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester. Dikanaya Tarahita is an Indonesian  freelance writer.They are regular contributors to Asia Sentinel.