By Nadine Haase and Michael Palocz-Andresen
First, the definitions of plastic, plastic waste, and plastic pollution will be clarified, followed by the topic of importation of plastic waste to Indonesia. Third, the poor waste management infrastructure and the lack of procedures for waste disposal will be touched upon. Fourth, the effects of plastic pollution on biodiversity are discussed, divided into the effects on animals and the process by which plastic reaches the food chain. Lastly, there will be a comparative look at the United Kingdom’s waste procedures and efforts to fight plastic pollution in contrast to Indonesia.
The world is drowning in plastic. The processing problem of plastic waste could already be described as a creeping or slow-motion crisis. At distant landfills, it accumulates silently. Many people do not appear to be aware of what transpires; many assume that “it is being recycled”. Yet, it is still unknown how, when, and where the recycling process takes place.
Plastics are not always recycled in Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, or even in industrialised countries – that much is certain. There are numerous examples such as dying land and areas with threatened extinction, endangered marine life, sick humans and animals. Polluted waters or global warming due to increased greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere by burning single-layer plastic; all are consequences of inadequate and improper disposal and processing of plastic waste.
Figure 1 shows the structure of plastic production, where the plastic ends up, and where plastic is found in living organisms.
What Exactly Is Plastic?
Plastic is an incredibly flexible and strong material. But it also has the tendency to be unbreakable and can only be divided into smaller particles. It always lives on in some form and cannot be destroyed entirely. Plastic contains toxins and is a carrier of toxins in its near environment that attach themselves to the surface of plastic particles. Therefore, the particles can cause tremendous harm to ecosystems while travelling through them. It can take thousands of years before the material decomposes. Different types of plastics have their individual durations before they biodegrade (see figure 2).
The particular reason for this is that plastic is composed of many tiny molecules fused to form an object of infinite use. Micro-plastics, or fragments of plastic that are hardly visible to the human eye, are harmful to humans, animals, small islands, coastal watersheds, and endangered species’ habitats. For plastic to be considered micro-plastic, it must be smaller than five millimetres in size .
Plastic Waste and Pollution
Essentially, waste is a material that does not create value to regular consumers. It is a useless product of human activities that physically contains identical substances that would be found in a product that is useful. Waste is something that no one, except companies with intentions of recycling it, can use and is commonly kept out of sight and out of mind .
Pollution can be defined as the introduction of damaging substances into the environment. These poisonous substances are called pollutants. They can emerge in exceptional ways. On one hand, they can be natural, for instance volcanic ashes or soot. On the other hand, they can be created with the aid of human actions, namely garbage or run-off produced in factories . Pollution has various negative consequences, which will be further elaborated on later in this article.
Accumulation of Plastic Waste in Indonesia
Indonesia is one of the world’s largest contributors to marine plastic pollution, with a significant amount of plastic waste generated by its rapidly growing population and economic development. The country’s archipelago geography and lack of waste management infrastructure have led to large amounts of plastic waste being disposed into nearby rivers and the ocean. Approximately 64 million tonnes of plastic reach the country of Indonesia annually via the importation of waste. Of that, 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste are disposed of into the ocean. According to the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Indonesia is the second-largest polluter of the world’s oceans, with 3.21 million metric tonnes of waste in 2019, after China with 8.81 million metric tonnes of plastic waste every year .
Causes of Plastic Pollution
Importation of Waste from Industrial Countries
Large quantities of plastics are shipped from industrial nations to Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia, where workers are paid less than in industrial countries.
Indonesia imports not only plastic waste but also all sorts of other materials to recycle them. Due to some of the imported plastic being of poor quality, not all imported goods can be recycled. Therefore, 35 per cent of the plastic is burned. Figure 3 shows the regional local regulations where Indonesia has restricted single-use plastic waste in provinces, cities, and regencies of Indonesia (as of July 2021).
Due to the low wages in developing countries, it is more affordable for industrial countries to ship their waste to developing countries rather than recycle it in an environmentally friendly way but with higher expenses. Usually, the reasoning of the United States, Australia, or countries in Europe is, on one hand, the high costs of recycling and, on the other hand, the recycling process being too complex . Figure 4 shows the principal destinations to which developed countries ship their plastic waste, from the year 2018.
In developing countries, it is cheaper to recycle materials, because employed workers manually sort reusable plastics with their bare hands, instead of using expensive machines. Additionally, plastic pollution occurs when waste is exported to other countries. There is a high possibility of rubbish leakages into the water before the ships arrive at their destination.
Poor Recycling Infrastructure and Waste Procedures
Indonesia’s citizens discharge around 400,000 tonnes of plastic into the ocean annually . It can take thousands of years before the plastic starts to break down into the environment. Many Indonesians lack access to recycling facilities or proper waste disposal systems. As a result, plastic waste frequently ends up in waterways and the ocean. Therefore, waste begins to pile up where there is free space available until it can be recycled. Figure 5 shows the transport of plastic waste from the land to the marine environment, when there are poor waste management procedures and a lack of recycling infrastructure.
One solution by which Indonesians have tried to deal with the issue is through open incineration of plastic waste. The particular reason that this is a common procedure in many areas is the low cost associated with it. No investment is required in waste management infrastructure or transportation to a landfill. Low-income households have much less means to support the environmentally friendly disposal of waste, which explains the practice . Figure 6 shows the treatment of waste in Indonesia from the year 2019.
In contrast, high-income households have more means to finance proper waste management services. There is a large wage gap between the different social strata of Indonesia. In 2017, more than half of the population was living below the poverty line. As of 2021, the population of Indonesia totalled around 275.5 million citizens. From this, one can conclude that, since more than half of the population live below the poverty line, the vast majority cannot rely on a healthy environment with clean water, air, and streets. From an estimated 364.5 kilotonnes of plastic waste that are dumped into the waters from land-based sources, around two-thirds can be traced back to the cities of Sumatra and Java, Indonesia.
Hence, the majority of plastic waste is usually not collected but discarded into open landfills or leaked from dumping grounds; 4.9 million tonnes of plastic rubbish are not managed appropriately . Figure 7 shows the types of plastic manufacturing in Indonesia .
Effects of Plastic Pollution
There are many different effects of plastic pollution. The effects that will be focused here are how plastic reaches the food chain, and the impacts of plastic on animals and the human body, as well as the environment.
Effects on Animals and How Plastic Reaches the Food Chain
Unintentionally, fish and other sea animals consume micro-plastic particles by mistaking them for food. By this means, harmful and toxic substances which accumulate on the surface of micro-plastics reach the digestive systems of wildlife. A study was sampled from fish markets in Makassar, Indonesia and California, USA.
From Indonesia’s samples, 28 per cent of individual fish and 55 per cent of all species had anthropogenic waste in them. In California 25 per cent of individual fish and 67 per cent of all species contained anthropogenic debris . Anthropogenic waste is biological or chemical waste that is also produced as a by-product of human activities.
Through the natural food chain, plastic is transmitted to the different digestive systems because it cannot be digested. It is either excreted or the micro-plastic travels with the food chains directly to the next animal, because the prey is eaten by predators. This process is known as the “trophic transfer of micro-plastics” . As the trophic transfer of micro-plastics occurs, the process of “bioaccumulation” takes place as well, meaning that the toxins attached to the particles accumulate in the fat and tissue of animals.
Effects of Plastic Pollution on the Human Body
Plastic can be found in all the different aspects of life. The industry’s dependence on plastic is increasing as ever more people rely on it and have no alternative to using it. However, the bigger the advantages, the more disadvantages there are. As mentioned, a large number of animals die due to starvation or even entanglement. Around the world, more than one million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals and turtles die every year from eating or getting tangled in plastic waste .
The negative effects of plastic in organisms can be seen not only with animals but are also starting to negatively affect the well-being of humans. Through the accumulation of plastic and harmful toxins in our environment, oceans, and inland water bodies, the emerging exposure to harmful particles and chemical additives is hardly reversible in a short period of time . Humans who consume fish and other animals will ingest the toxins through the toxic plastic particles that can be found in the organisms.
The UK’s Current State of Plastic Accumulation and Management
Sharing the recycling problem in Indonesia with all the following health risks for all organisms and biodiversity in general, it only leaves room to ask how an industrial country that is also an island, namely the United Kingdom, deals with plastic pollution.
In the UK, each person is said to use 37 single-use plastic pieces of flatware and 18 single-use plastic plates annually. Due to the durability of plastic and the fact that, for example, a plastic fork is used for only a short period of time, nature is left to deal with the problem for the next hundreds of years and longer. Annually, the United Kingdom produces around 5 million tonnes of plastic waste, half of which is packaging.
In 2021, 63.2 per cent of UK’s packaging waste was recycled. Collected items were plastic bottles, plastic bags, and all other forms of packaging containing plastic. In 2020, around 1.2 megatonnes of plastic packaging were recycled, compared to the years around 2000, which is a fourfold increase. Additionally, in contrast to 2017 / 2018, there is an increase of 4 per cent in collected waste from UK households .
Approaches to Tackling Plastic Pollution in Indonesia
For rural areas, it is fairly hard to find solutions that are quick and effective. Nevertheless, there are governmental approaches and projects to combat plastic pollution that Indonesia faces.
The country announced new import policies in 2020, which included restrictions on the importation of paper and plastic waste with a maximum contamination of 2 per cent. The country is committed to reducing the current plastic waste in the sea by 70 per cent by 2025. There have been campaigns started by local agencies to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags. With these efforts, some cities have prohibited the supply of these specific shopping bags. In 2016, there was a three-month trial to offer bags in exchange for payment at some shops. With that test, there was a decrease of around 30 per cent in plastic bag use. Unfortunately, the majority of people still used plastic bags for grocery shopping. So far, a policy to prohibit plastic bags has been implemented in a few modern retail shops. However, in fact, the traditional markets are the biggest contributors to plastic bag waste, not the retail stores .
Approaches in the United Kingdom
Approaches in Action
Compared to Indonesia, the United Kingdom has a highly advanced infrastructure with modern transportation systems and well-functioning telecommunications networks, as well as a highly developed healthcare system. In response to the issues we have been discussing and bearing in mind all the negative effects on biodiversity, as well as the possibilities afforded by the efficient infrastructure, the UK had a manifesto commitment in 2019 to ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries. “OECD” is an abbreviation for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international organisation with the aim of creating and securing better politics for improved life, wealth, justice, chances, and life quality.
According to the UK Parliament’s Commons Library, since 1 January 2021 the rules of the Basel Convention apply to the UK. It obliges the United Kingdom to respect various regulations for the export of waste to countries abroad. However, so far, the UK has not implemented its own plastic ban, although it is in planning .
Local authorities collect all waste and send it to specialised institutions to be processed further (see figure 8). In 2000, the majority of the 28 million tonnes of waste were sent to landfills, where it piled up, and only a small percentage was burned later on in the process or composted. Twenty years later, almost half of the collected 25 million tonnes of waste is incinerated or composted, whereas only a very small amount of rubbish is collected at distant landfills. There has been a positive improvement with regard to piling up all waste at landfills, especially in the amount of waste that is recycled or composted.
Approaches for the Future
The UK government introduced various policies to reduce plastic waste in December 2018. Within the Resources and Waste Strategy, a new deposit return scheme (DRS) has been introduced in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland also introduced a new, unrelated DRS, which is planned to start in August 2023. For instance, with the DRS, recyclable containers and plastic bottles will find their way to professional disposal instead of being discarded as litter. Additionally, the packaging producer’s responsibility is being reformed in all of the UK .
Plastic pollution is an issue not only at an individual level, but on a global scale as well. The negative consequences of using plastics due to toxic exposure are a major problem for all organisms in all ecosystems.
In Indonesia, there is an ever-growing awareness of plastic pollution and its negative effects but also a strong positive will to improve the country’s litter infrastructure in a more environmentally friendly direction. With the measures taken and more plans in development, there will be many positive changes in the far future. It has to be said that it will take a fair amount of time before the planning and introduction of procedures brings noticeable first results, since the changes in health will only be noticeable some years from now.
In the United Kingdom, there is an evidently strong commitment to improve plastic waste management. The UK is not only a well-deserved role model for other countries struggling to tackle plastic pollution and its effects, but is also setting a benchmark for the importance of a healthy environment. There have been plenty of measures to deal with plastic waste and its origin that seem to be making a tangible difference. With all the measures being relatively new, it will be interesting to see how much the changes will live up to their potential in the long run.
The authors would like to thank Alok Jain, CEO and Managing Director, Trans-Consult Ltd., Hong Kong, China for supporting the above seminar series for many years.
About the Authors
Nadine Haase studies Law at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany. In one module about climate protection around the world, she focused on plastic recycling issues in Indonesia and compared it to the United Kingdom as an industrial country. She is interested in the problem because the UK and Indonesia are both islands in terms of geographics, but different in terms of development.
Michael Palocz-Andresen is a guest professor at BUAP Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. In 2018-21 he worked as a Herder professor supported by the DAAD at the TEC de Monterrey in Mexico. He became a full professor at the University West Hungary 2005-17. Currently, he is a guest professor at the TU Budapest, the Leuphana University Lüneburg, and at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He is a Humboldt scientist and instructor of the SAE International in the USA.
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