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Indonesia Vows to Send Back Illegal Plastic Waste

Tourists and local residents disembark a boat coming from nearby Nusa Penida island as plastic trash pollutes the beach in Sanur, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia April 10, 2018.
Tourists and local residents disembark a boat coming from nearby Nusa Penida island as plastic trash pollutes the beach in Sanur, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia April 10, 2018.

Among the tons of paper that comes into Indonesia for processing from overseas are countless pieces of plastic.

“I found food packaging. That’s the most common. For example, the microwavable TV dinners, pet food, snacks, or trash from household items, soap or cleaning solutions,” said Prigi Arisandi, a documentary filmmaker in East Java.

As the founder of Ecoton, an environmental non-governmental organization in Indonesia, Arisandi wanted to find out how plastic waste from overseas can enter Indonesia.

“It’s on YouTube, it’s called Take Back!,” he said.

According to Arisandi, plastic waste can enter the country through imported used paper, the main material paper companies need to produce paper products. He has visited the country's landfills and sorted through the plastic waste that had been taken in by trash collectors.

The Indonesian filmmaker says the plastic comes from developed countries, such as Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Canada.

Data from the Indonesian National Statistics Agency showed a 141% increase in plastic waste imports last year. Indonesia imported a total of 283,000 tons of plastic, the highest recorded number in the past 10 years.

Exporting Plastic Waste to Indonesia is Illegal by Law

Annisa Erou, a researcher from Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said Indonesia has regulations against imported trash.

“In the law on trash management, it is clearly stated it is illegal to import trash, so plastic waste is not allowed. What is allowed, according to the ministerial decree, is production waste in the form of scraps. So plastic waste from production which can be recycled can be imported, but waste from consumption can’t,” she explained.

Erou said what NGOs and activists have found so far is mostly plastic waste from household consumption. But because the plastic waste was sent with the material for paper production, the shipment could easily pass customs inspection.

“With the customs, there’s the green line and red line. Industrial raw material usually goes to the green line, so they will say ok to it,” said Erou.

She added there is a loophole that can be used with the trade ministry’s decree, because of the word "miscellaneous" in one of the article. “This word is problematic because miscellaneous can mean anything, although household waste is already forbidden in the trash management law. And the person can be punished according to the article no. 39,” she said.

Caused by China’s National Policy

Erou noted one reason for the increase in illegal plastic waste imports is because as of January 2018, China ended its past practice of accepting trash such as scrap paper and plastic waste.

“So the countries that used to send their trash to China, now look for alternative. And that is Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia,” she noted.

Re-Exporting Plastic Waste

Indonesian Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar said Indonesia will reject plastic waste that entered the country illegally.

“We already have the regulation, so we will re-export,” she said at a press conference on June 10.

According to Bakar, this is not the first time illicit plastic has been brought into Indonesia. In 2015 and 2016, the ministry re-exported dozens of containers filled with illegal plastic waste. Bakar assured her ministry will coordinate with other institutions, including the Trade Ministry, the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs and Customs.

Arisandi is skeptical about the government's stated intent. “I don’t want to keep my hopes up and later they backtrack from what they said they were going to do,” he said.

He has sent a formal letter to the ministry and initiated an online petition to encourage the government to do what it takes to get rid of illegal plastic waste. Arisandi is worried in the long run the additional burden of plastic can be detrimental to the environment of Indonesia.

Indonesia can only recycle around nine to 10 percent of its plastic waste, the rest will fill up landfills or be burned.

“The garbage collectors usually burn the plastic in an open field, like I showed in the documentary. It’s very dangerous for the environment and health because burning plastic can produce dangerous gas,” he said.

Arisandi hoped the Indonesian government can act as quickly as countries like the Philippines in sending back illegal plastic waste. President Rodrigo Duterte returned dozens of shipping containers full of trash from the Philippines to Canada last month.

Meanwhile, Erou said one of the reasons why the Philippines was quick to take action was because the environmental NGOs and activists had been relentless in pushing their government.

“We should do the same, with enough pressure I’m sure our government will take action,” she said.