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Indonesian Village Reels from Plastic Pollution as Waste Imports Soar

Ahmad Syamsudin
Taman Mekar, Indonesia
2019-05-27
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A man examines plastic packaging at a roadside dumpsite in Taman Mekar, a village in Indonesia’s West Java province, May 17, 2019.
A man examines plastic packaging at a roadside dumpsite in Taman Mekar, a village in Indonesia’s West Java province, May 17, 2019.
Ahmad Syamsudin/BenarNews

Endi Sudiana, a community organizer in Taman Mekar, a village in Indonesia’s West Java province, is fed up with plastic trash that blankets the roadside next to his house but says there’s little he can do about it.

The garbage is mostly imported from industrialized countries, and has become more visible around his village after China last year stopped importing waste from abroad for recycling in an effort to cut down on pollution.

“The problem is, in our regency, even the government has a difficult time handling household waste, and now we have trash from foreign countries,” Endi told BenarNews.

In Taman Mekar, located in Karawang regency about 80 km (49.7 miles) from Jakarta, an Indonesian paper company has been dumping imported plastic waste, creating the ever-growing eyesore near his home (pictured above), Endi said.

And to complicate things, many of his fellow villagers see the garbage not as a problem but a source of livelihood, he said, because they can pick through the pile and sell pieces of reusable plastic refuse off to recyclers.

“It’s a dilemma for me. Some residents benefit from it but other people like me feel that it’s harmful,” Endi said as a BenarNews reporter visited him at his house recently.

Elsewhere in the village, scavengers could be seen rifling through a mountain of plastic trash on that hot and sunny morning in mid-May. An odor of burnt plastic wafted through the air.

Some of the residents of Taman Mekar who make a living selling scrap and other recyclables worry that criticism from environmentalists over sharp increases in imported plastic waste could threaten this income source, according to Erik Ramdani, an activist with Forkadas, a local conservation group.

“They have nothing else to do. There are not many jobs around,” he told BenarNews.

He advised the reporter not to approach any of the scavengers because, he said, they could be hostile and even violent toward visiting environmentalists and journalists.

A man picks through plastic packaging in a dumpsite for imported plastic trash, in Bekasi, in Indonesia’s West Java province, May 16, 2019. [Ahmad Syamsudin/BenarNews]
A man picks through plastic packaging in a dumpsite for imported plastic trash, in Bekasi, in Indonesia’s West Java province, May 16, 2019. [Ahmad Syamsudin/BenarNews]

Environmentalist concerns

Forkadas and other environmental advocacy groups in Indonesia have urged the central government to tighten regulations on imports of waste from industrialized countries, saying the trash is polluting rivers and doing other harm to the environment.

The flows of plastic waste into Indonesia increased sharply after China imposed restrictions on waste imports, starting in January 2018.

In 2018, Indonesia imported 320.4 million kilos (706. 3 million pounds) of plastic waste in 2018, up from 128.8 million kilos (283.9 million pounds) from the previous year, according to figures from the nation’s Ministry of Trade.

Before 2018, China used to take in about 45 percent of the world’s scrap plastic, according to a report from Science Advances, a journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As a result of the new Chinese restrictions, Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia have since become primary importers of trash that used to go to China.

An Indonesian activist group, which calls itself Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (Ecoton), says that plastic brought in among bales of waste paper imported from foreign countries has been dumped into the Brantas, a river in East Java province.

“We have found that microplastic particles have been contaminating our rivers, water, soil, and 80 percent of fish sampled in the Brantas River contain micro-plastic,” Ecoton founder Prigi Arisandi told BenarNews.

Micro-plastic pollution is spread with wastewater from paper and recycling companies that use imported paper and plastic waste from other countries, he said.

Indonesia imports scrap paper to be used as raw material for the domestic pulp and paper industry, but companies only use the paper for production, while the plastic trash that comes with it is sold to local communities, which then sell more valuable pieces of the refuse to recycling companies, Prigi said.

“Indonesia has 55 paper companies, 22 of which are in East Java, and we have found that they import used paper. What is of concern is there’s plastic waste in materials that are imported,” Prigi told BenarNews.

“We found out that countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia dispose of their household waste by exporting it among used paper,” he added.

Earlier this month, 187 countries adopted amendments to the Basel Convention, a 1989 treaty that aims to reduce the movement of plastic and hazardous waste across national borders.

Those amendments, approved earlier this month during a conference in Geneva, would enter into force on Jan. 1, 2021 and require nations that export plastic waste to first obtain permission from countries receiving the trash.

Government action

In Jakarta, the director general in charge of waste management and toxic materials at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, told BenarNews that imported plastic was non-hazardous and non-toxic provided it came in the form of scrap and clean plastic.

“Under a 2016 Trade Ministry regulation, such materials can be imported and categorized as residual waste for production. We have strict rules on such imports,” said the official, Rosa Vivien Ratnawati.

The environment ministry has proposed revisions to the trade ministry’s regulation on importing non-toxic materials, she said.

“Products must be homogeneous, clean and go into production immediately, so they’re not resold domestically as waste,” Ratnawati said.

Nani Hendiarti, an assistant to the deputy minister of maritime affairs, said the government was drafting a stricter regulation on waste imports.

“Even though it is categorized as an industrial material, it is still waste. We are currently trying to formulate a regulation. What we want is for any waste not to enter Indonesia,” she told BenarNews.

No smell, except when wet

Back in Taman Mekar, Endi, the community organizer, said no study had been done on the health and environmental impacts of plastic waste allegedly dumped by local firm PT Pindo Deli Pulp and Paper Mills.

Pindo Deli is part of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), one of the world’s largest paper and packaging companies.

“Unlike local household garbage, it doesn’t smell except when it’s wet after rain,” Endi told Benar.

Residents who collect plastic waste in their house yards usually burn it after they finish scavenging for valuables, Endi said.

“These companies make cardboards but why do they import plastic waste? This has been our question,” he added.

A spokesman for Pindo Deli could not immediately be reached for comment. But in a statement to Detik.com, an Indonesian news portal, the company acknowledged that it imported waste from several countries, including the United States.

“We guarantee that the waste is not toxic or hazardous,” company deputy manager AdilTeguh told Detik.com.

“We are withdrawing the waste back to our factory and will pay competent vendors to destroy it,” he added.

In a letter dated April 29, Wawan Setiawan, the head of the environmental office in Karawang regency, ordered the Pindo Deli factory to halt operations, saying residents had complained that the company was dumping its waste into the Cibeet River.

“We ordered production activity to close because the company does not have the Environmental Feasibility Certificate, but they still carry on with their operations,” Wawan said.

Andre Anwar, another resident of Taman Mekar, said local people had grown used to finding valuable items other than recyclables in the piles of trash accumulating around the village.

“Sometimes they stumble upon 100- or 50-dollar notes. I tried to look, but I had no luck,” he told BenarNews, He held up half of a torn U.S. $1 bill, which he had found at a nearby dump.

“People here don’t know the regulations. There’s business to be made from collecting garbage, but there’s no information from the local government about the effects of plastic garbage being burned in our backyards,” Anwar said.

Used packaging for a food product made in the United States is seen amid a pile of trash at a dumpsite in Bekasi, Indonesia, May 16, 2019. [Ahmad Syamsudin/BenarNews]
Used packaging for a food product made in the United States is seen amid a pile of trash at a dumpsite in Bekasi, Indonesia, May 16, 2019. [Ahmad Syamsudin/BenarNews]

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