At 5 a.m., it would be nice to go for a walk in the cool in the streets of Kalianyar, in the countryside of East Java, if only the villagers weren’t burning their rubbish: dead leaves and plastic wrappers give off smoke in front of every house. Plastic abounds in Indonesian daily life, whether for single use or for objects. In supermarkets and grocery stores, glass or cardboard containers are rarer than in Europe and individual doses are more widespread. In markets, a commonly-found stall is one that sells the plastic bags and polystyrene boxes used in abundance to other traders. Slamet Riyadi, a 40-year-old man working in tourism after learning English by himself, explains: “The villagers believe that since they can’t see anything, there is nothing left. But the plastic remains!”
In Indonesia, only large cities organise waste collection, sometimes in innovative ways. Slamet would like to set up a green grassroots organisation to run local initiatives, sort and sell what can be recycled, compost the organic materials and for the rest... we’ll see. Right now, he’s the only one worrying about the dioxin-laden fumes.
Closer to the provincial capital, Surabaya, the environmental activists of the Ecoton NGO are more experienced. For years, these trained biologists have been warning about the water quality of the Brantas River, where fish are becoming hermaphroditic, probably due to deposits of micro-plastics in their guts.
Western wishcyclers and Javanese ragpickers
Indonesia is overflowing with waste... and now with ours. We Westerners are known to sort it out well. Too well, in fact. It’s called wishcycling: this little pot of non-recyclable organic or vegan yogurt, if I sorted it with recyclable plastics, maybe it would work. Wouldn’t it?
Under the generic name of plastic, you can find anything labelled from 1 to 7 on the package. 1 for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used in water or soda bottles. 2 for high-density polyethylene (HDPE), used in milk, oil or laundry detergent bottles. 5 for polypropylene (PP), which has a variety of uses. The others are to be thrown away, burned – do what you can.
Since 1950, only 9% of the plastics produced worldwide have been recycled. Manufacturers do their business in waste treatment, incineration or recycling, but poor sorting (wishcycling or negligence) makes recycling more expensive, not always competitive with the production of new plastic. So either everything is burned together in our incinerators, or the waste is sent to countries where poorer people can make a modest living from our bins: a PET bottle of soda to be resold at a local factory, a 5 Canadian dollar bill... On their heap of waste, a few kilometers from Ecoton’s premises, ragpickers display one of their finds, a U.S. flag.
A global waste trade
Since the waste crisis of 2018, Southeast Asian countries have been struggling to deal with garbage from all over the world. What crisis? China, which used to recycle some of the Western waste, warned the WTO in mid-2017 that it would close its doors on 1 January 2018. The operation “National Sword”, which aims to “protect China, its environment and the health of its citizens”, embarrasses the recycling industry. The latter then moved part of their activity to Southeast Asian countries, first and foremost Malaysia.
Despite their abundant use of plastics, neither Indonesia, Thailand nor Malaysia have a miraculous technical solution for processing them. On the other hand, these are countries with weak environmental legislation . Their poor populations find it difficult to assert their right to a healthy environment or to refuse to work in the landfills that have sprung up in these three countries since 2018. These activities existed before China’s withdrawal, but they have since taken on a whole new dimension.
Uncontrolled landfills in Malaysia
Alerted by bad smells and skin or respiratory problems, villagers on Malaysia’s west coast discovered, site after site, waste treatment workshops in their area. The waste is sorted, burned in the open air or scattered in the wild, or sometimes simply stored while waiting for the site to become saturated and for rogue contractors to flee. The local branches of international NGOs are on the ground: Greenpeace is releasing a report at the end of 2018, GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) in April 2019. It is Mageswari Sangaralingam, a Malaysian woman already involved in struggles for indigenous peoples with Friends of the Earth, who is handling the dossier for GAIA. The story comes out in the Western media and journalists come to look at their bins: “Foreign journalists get very excited when they find a piece of waste from home in a dump,” notes Mageswari.
Konbini, a French news website, expresses its outrage in a short video about French milk cartons in the middle of coconut palms and lets us know that only 2 per cent of European waste is exported to Asia to such damaging consequences. Together with Agence France Presse, they will be the only ones to deal with the subject properly in France in the spring of 2019. The global crisis of plastic waste and water quality, the ecological aberration of rubbish transported over tens of thousands of kilometres, the neo-colonial aspects of free trade, the pity for people sickened by our plastics or who sustain themselves by rummaging through our rubbish bins... other publications, notably American ones, cover the issue better.
Prohibition of trafficking in plastic waste
At the beginning of May 2019, an international conference in Geneva takes place, attended by Mageswari and Prigi Arisandi, president of Ecoton. Norway, following the recommendations of Southeast Asian NGOs, proposed the inclusion of plastic waste in the Basel Convention on hazardous waste. Dangerous, they are indeed, since all these plastics release toxic components into landfills or during incineration.
The Americans, although they are not parties to this convention, are very present to defend their interests. Together with the American Council of Chemical Industries and the Institute of Waste Recycling Industries, they are opposed to this proposal, which is nonetheless adopted. Mageswari and Prigi won: international trade in non-recyclable, soiled or mixed plastic waste is banned.
Return of waste to sender
The largest amount of waste was sent to Malaysia in 2018. Illegal shipments were discovered in hundreds of containers in May-June 2019: a Spanish shipment of soiled plastic waste misreported in Port Klang, 265 containers in Butterworth (the country’s second largest port), hiding decomposing organic waste under recyclable plastic waste .
Local politicians (who in 2018 had refused to ban imports on the grounds that it makes good business sense), stage outbursts of ecological patriotism. Malaysia’s Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin promises to return 3,000 tonnes to their countries of origin. Authoritarian Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte demanding that Canada takes back its waste, calls back his diplomats and sends 69 containers to the port of Vancouver, threatening to sink the cargo in Canadian territorial waters. In September, the Republic of Indonesia continues to send back illegal shipments like this one: five containers that left Seattle, U.S.A., and arrived in June, supposedly containing paper for recycling. In the middle of the paper were plastic waste, bottles and even used baby diapers. Ironically, Ecoton’s previous campaign sought to raise awareness on this very issue among people living along the Brantas River and set up a diaper collection network.
A crisis for a change?
While wealthy urban classes around the world are working towards “zero waste”, reinventing banana leaf packaging in South and Southeast Asia, the world is crumbling under plastic waste. U.S. landfills are saturated, recycling is unable to handle all the plastics introduced into everyday life... For a long time seen as a more environmentally friendly solution than landfill or incineration, to the point where its good practice has been used as a criterion for social distinction, the myth of recycling is flapping. And even more noble materials such as paper and glass are being questioned. This waste crisis is finally putting the rich countries’ noses over their rubbish. It now appears that disposable packaging (then called non-returnable packaging) has been a good deal for industrialists, who, by generalizing it for two generations, have been able to pass on their costs to the community. It’s time for a radical change of model, but will the interests at stake give way as easily as in Geneva?
↬ Aude Vidal
Take Back! — documentary by Linda Nursanti produced by Ecoton (June 2019).