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How can Indonesia win against plastic pollution?

Trash washed up on Bali’s Kuta beach on February 2016. Reuters/Antara News Agency

How can Indonesia win against plastic pollution?

Four of Indonesia’s rivers rank among the 20 most polluted in the world in terms of mismanaged plastic waste measured in metric tons.

This makes Indonesia the second-largest contributor to marine plastic pollution after China. A recent research article, published in the journal Nature Communications, estimates that between 1.15 million and 2.41 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year from rivers. Of this, Indonesia is estimated to emit around 200,000 tonnes of plastic from rivers and streams, mainly from Java and Sumatra.

Plastic debris can kill marine animals that get entangled and drown or starve after they ingest particles they cannot digest. Toxins leach from plastic as it breaks down, posing health risks for animals, while also entering the food chain and eventually ending up on our plates.

Many in Indonesia often use single-use plastics in the form of plastic bags, cups, straws, bottles and other utensils, making plastic a common part of daily life.

In Feb. 2016 the government tried to reduce plastic use by introducing a tax of Rp 200 (2 US cents) on single-use plastic bags. Critics lamented the additional charge was not high enough and that there should be more transparency in how the tax revenue would be used. In October, the Indonesian retailers association decided to stop the program altogether, citing lack of legal grounds to charge the bags.

Need for better land-based waste management

To stop Indonesia polluting the ocean with plastic it is important to change the country’s land-based waste management.

The study in Nature Communications revealed that “land-based sources, as opposed to marine-based sources, are considered the dominant input of plastics into oceans”. This includes mismanaged plastic waste – domestic and commercial – that is discarded, deliberately or unintentionally, in rivers.

At the UN’s first Ocean Conference last June, which focused on the sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources, Indonesia pledged to reduce plastic debris by 70% by 2025.

Commitments such as this are good steps towards policy change. But some environmentalists and scholars are sceptical about the effectiveness of current government efforts. Currently Indonesia’s Law on Waste Management doesn’t have any specific reference to plastic waste.

What has law got to do with it?

To start with, some basic definitions are needed. It is crucial to distinguish between degradable plastic, recyclable plastic, biodegradable plastic and compostable alternatives to plastic.

There are widely held misconceptions about plastic said to be degradable. In fragmented form it can actually leach toxins, enter the food chain and become highly hazardous to the environment and human health.

More stringent laws could prohibit some plastic usage, set standards for waste minimisation in packaging and impose producer responsibility for waste disposal as well as set out reuse, recycling and disposal obligations.

Indonesia’s Law on Waste Management states that the national and regional governments share responsibility for rubbish. But the law does not indicate who is to do what.

The national government has the authority to set national policy and strategy. It’s the only level of government that can set “norms, standards, procedure and criteria” (article 7).

The national government is also authorised to create incentives and disincentives for reducing rubbish (article 21). It is unclear whether local governments can do the same.

In December 2014, the governor of Bali announced that the island would be “plastic bag free by 2018”. But follow-up action has been slow. This is partly due to confusion about which level of government should act first. To date, the national government appears reluctant to lead the way.

The Law on Protection and Management of the Environment enables provincial governments to create incentives and disincentives such as environmental taxes, fees to use a public facility and subsidies. Unfortunately, it seems that regional governments are still deferring to the national level unless they are given a green light to proceed.

Current policies

The Indonesian government is structuring a national program to tackle land-based management of waste over four years. The intention is to dedicate up to US$1 billion to reduce plastic pollution. What such a program may look like is yet to be confirmed.

A number of NGOs, individuals and private and public organisations are already working to reduce plastic pollution across Indonesia, by educating schoolchildren, cleaning beaches and advocating for better waste management.

Across Indonesia, Bali appears to be a stronghold for such campaigns. This is perhaps because its natural beauty and status as an international tourist destination are under threat from mismanaged waste and debris.

Fifteen city administrations, including Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan, are expected to engage in controlling plastic waste.

Eleven ministries, including the Co-ordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and the Ministry for the Environment and Forestry, have agreed to a National Action Plan, starting in 2017, to tackle marine plastic.

The plan includes activities to change behaviour through education and awareness-raising, limiting plastic consumption, better waste management and financing mechanisms.

More than awareness and education

Community awareness about the hazards of poorly managed plastic waste is important. But it’s unlikely to be sufficient to actually reduce dependency on single-use plastic.

To win the battle against plastic pollution, the Indonesian central and regional governments need to strengthen their legal framework.

Nationally applicable definitions are needed to distinguish between degradable plastic, recyclable plastic, biodegradable plastic and compostable plastic alternatives. There is a need to be clear about responsibility at each level of government and the creation of new norms, standards, procedures and criteria.

The government must embark on a multi-tiered approach that engages affected communities. Those who continuously experience plastic pollution live with the urgency for action on a daily basis.


Thomas Wright co-wrote this article with Dr Sarah Waddell, an Indonesian environmental law specialist.