Plastic waste: The blame is on us, convenience-minded consumers
JAKARTA — Indonesia’s problem of plastic waste pollution is not the result of the occasional rogue foreign shipment. It is caused mainly by each one of us, the hundreds of millions of convenience-minded consumers who have become so used to buying cosmetics, household detergents, water, eggs in boxes and packaged food in single-use packaging.
When buying such products we don’t give a thought to what will happen to the plastic after we discard it. Unless sorted and collected such packaging will end up in a landfill where it will degrade only after 450 years, experts say, or, worse, find its way to the sea.
Recently, a few Asian governments intercepted imported shipments of allegedly hazardous waste comprising household garbage, municipal waste, hospital waste and electronic scrap. Indonesia itself has shipped five containers of plastic wastes back from Tanjung Perak Port in Surabaya, East Java, to the exporters in the countries of origin, mostly Western industrialized nations.
Some of this waste had been misleadingly declared recyclable plastic scrap and there is a likely connection between the sudden increase of such shipments and the notification given by China to the World Trade Organization in July 2017 that it would no longer import various kinds of recyclable scrap. Since the early 1990’s China eagerly consumed 60 percent of the world’s recyclable scrap to fuel its manufacturing boom and this sudden decision left scrap exporters scrambling to look for new markets.
According to research by the United Kingdom-based Financial Times, the countries that immediately stepped in to fill the gap left by China were, in order of size, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, India, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Turkey and Indonesia.
Politicians have found it fashionable to describe Asia as having become the “dumping ground” for the waste of Western countries. However, every shipment of recyclable plastic involves a buyer and seller.
No reputable recycling company wants to import scrap that has been contaminated and no foreign government wants the embarrassment of being forced to take back its own garbage.
However, in international trade there will always be rogue elements all too ready to make a quick profit through fraudulent declarations. Until recently the export of plastic scrap was not even covered by the Basel Convention, so such exporters could not be prosecuted by their own governments.
The main reason that China gave to the WTO for its decision to stop importing scrap was because many shipments had been mixed with “dirty waste” that could not be used as raw material and contaminated the environment.
Fortunately this problem was recently addressed by the Basel Action Network and in May 2019 the Basel Convention was amended to include mixed and contaminated plastic scrap as “hazardous waste”. Indonesia also signed the amendment that will come into force in January 2021.
Unfortunately the isolated cases of waste imports have resulted in an unfair backlash against the import of plastic and other scrap needed as raw material for the legitimate local recycling industry. The call for a total ban on transboundary plastic scrap is a throwaway phrase that does not acknowledge this important local industry.
In Indonesia a well-established reputable recycling industry employs thousands of people. The Industry Ministry estimates Indonesia needs 600,000 tons of imported scrap a year and can potentially enjoy a healthy trade surplus by exporting back recycled plastic pellets, flakes, plastic chips and geotextiles for road construction.
Reputable foreign investors have entered this sector such as the recent bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in East Java. At least one of Indonesia’s largest producers of bottled water can now claim to use bottles made out of 100 percent recycled local plastic.
However, the local recycling industry presently has no choice but to continue to import plastic scrap because it is simply not able to utilize the plastic waste produced by Indonesian consumers, owing to the absence of efficient municipal waste collection, sorting and cleaning systems.
Unless there is a demand from the consumer for biodegradable containers, or for a reuse model in which all bottled liquids have to be sold together with refills, the amount of single use packaging will not decrease in the short-term. Indonesia should instead immediately implement less challenging strategies.
We cannot expect consumers to sort their household waste or desist from throwing it into the river for love of the environment. Even Singapore, a model of urban cleanliness, has yet to convince residents to sort their household waste. However, if householders are paid to sort their waste as in the commendable Indonesian bank sampah (app-based garbage collection bank) scheme, already comprising over 7,000 banks, then they will do so.
Similarly, we cannot expect municipalities to find the funds for recycling facilities. However, such funds would be readily available if there was a regulation on a national program of extended producer responsibility (EPR) in which the producer who delivers a product in a single-use container must take responsibility for its end of life, and make a small contribution to an ecofund for recycling infrastructure. Such a program could also be extended to the less visible but more serious problem of electric and electronic waste.
The EPR regulation could be part of a wider effort under Law No. 18/2008 on waste management to cut Indonesia’s waste output; it would oblige producers and retailers to redesign their product packaging to have a higher proportion of recyclable material. It will also require that they take greater responsibility for the waste management of their products.
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