Plastic pollution

A blight on its environment, Indonesia strides towards zero plastic goal

Indonesia is among the world's most heavily plastic polluted nations. To tackle this, the National Plastic Action Partnership is the country's most radical plan to date, but can it be effectively implemented and at what human cost?

Akshay Honmane
June 4, 2020
A blight on its environment, Indonesia strides towards zero plastic goal
Saripah, a woman scavenger, takes a break on the roadside in Jakarta on May 29 along with a sack full of plastic waste which can bring her $1.37 a day. Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP

In Indonesia, the catch of the day is often served with a side of plastic. 

According to a study conducted on the Indonesian city of Makassar, 55% of the fish species sold in its market are contaminated with microplastics. Across the archipelago, where over 3.7 million Indonesians depend on wild fisheries for their livelihood, this poses an acute problem.

Southeast Asia has become a global hub in addressing the crisis of plastic waste pollution in rivers and oceans, with China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam and Thailand accounting for up to 60% of the plastic waste leaking into the ocean according to a 2015 report

Indonesia itself generates around 6.8 million tonnes of plastic every year, and this number is growing 5% annually. As per the official figures by the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), the flow of plastic in the country’s water bodies is projected to grow by 30% by 2025.

To address the issue, last year, in partnership GPAP, Indonesia released its most ambitious and radical plan yet in the form of National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP). The NPAP compares two possible outcomes for Indonesia – one is the “business as usual” scenario, where the plastic pollution is projected to increase by two thirds by 2025 and  doubling by 2040, if action is not taken. 

The next outcome is through the System Change Scenario that would see a doubling of current recycling capacity by 2025, among four other ambitious society wide transformations designed to significantly reduce plastic waste and meet its near-zero plastic pollution 2040 goal.

Indonesia currently has an under-developed and under-funded waste management system, where only around 39% of plastic waste is collected, with this figure dropping to 16% in rural areas. Municipal solid waste is handled by the Cleansing Department (Seksi Kebersihan) of each district where household waste collection is delegated to the lowest level of government.

Michelle Ammann, Research Assistant at Sustainability and Resilience – an environmental think-tank based in Bali, Indonesia – explained that enforcing the NPAP will be challenging due to this decentralised form of governance and accountability. She adds that Indonesia’s current decentralised system results in a lack of funds, technical knowledge and general will to properly enforce waste management.

“NPAP is not enough to tackle the crisis. Given Indonesia adheres to a decentralised system, NPAP should be degraded into Local Plastic Action Partnership and the local regulation should be followed so that some local budget can be allocated,” she told the Globe. “These actions can be pioneered and accelerated within local government and actors because waste management should be addressed at the local level.”

Critically, the country is also running short on relevant land for waste disposing and its existing infrastructure is inefficient. Around 80% to 90% of recycling companies are currently concentrated on the island of Java, where the capital Jakarta is located, with another large concentration in Northern Sumatra. This leaves a large part of the archipelago far removed from recycling plants.

It is for this reason that NPAP also seeks to strengthen the existing Jakstrada policy by developing Solid Waste Management and Recycling Master Plans for each province.

The human impact of NPAP is a further consideration for those entrusted with implementing it.

Currently across Indonesia, waste banks such Bank Sampah involve informal community-based efforts to collect sorted inorganic waste that has economic value, usually run by people who wish to increase their income. 

If we want to protect the essential services provided by waste pickers, a future circular economy needs to have clear transitional pathways to pull them into formal jobs

NPAP, in aiming to significantly reduce plastic waste, threatens the livelihoods of these millions of waste pickers, reliant upon informal waste collection to earn their living.

“In the long run, informal workers will always be vulnerable to crisis and shocks to the economy,” says Tiza Mafira, Associate Director of Climate Policy Initiative, a think tank in Indonesia. “If we want to protect the essential services provided by waste pickers, a future circular economy needs to have clear transitional pathways to pull them into formal jobs.”

Circular economies are on the radar of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). Supported by the government of Japan, UNESCAP created the initiative “Closing the Loop”, seeking to reduce plastic waste and leakage into the environment across Southeast Asia in line with Sustainable Development Goals 11, 12 and 14. 

In order to meet both the NPAP and Closing the Loop goals of reduced plastic waste, Mafira says that attitudes and behaviour towards recyclable goods and creating a circular economy must evolve from the top-down.

“There is a need to overhaul the design of packaging and delivery systems if we are to reduce problematic plastics and ensure that everything on the supply chain are high-value recyclables,” she says.

“A major hurdle is that so far the focus of investments has been more on downstream high tech solutions, such as waste-to-energy, and less on upstream solutions such as redesigning packaging.” 

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