Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia. A snorkeller swims alongside a manta ray surrounded by plastic trash in December 2014. Photograph: Nick Pumphrey/nickpumphrey.com
Indonesia has pledged up to $1bn a year to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic and other waste products polluting its waters. The announcement was made by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs at last week’s 2017 World Oceans Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali.
Pandjaitan told delegates at the conference that Indonesia would achieve a 70% reduction in marine waste within eight years. He proposed developing new industries that use biodegradable materials such as cassava and seaweed to produce plastic alternatives. Other measures could include a nationwide tax on plastic bags as well as a sustained public education campaign.
The World Bank estimates that each of Indonesia’s 250 million inhabitants is responsible for between 0.8 and 1kg of plastic waste per annum. Only China dumps more waste in the ocean, according to a 2015 report in the journal Science.
The world’s second biggest plastic polluter also boasts the world’s highest levels of marine biodiversity. Indonesia lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle; its incredibly rich coral reef ecosystems support crucial fisheries, provide food security for millions and are a growing draw for tourists.
Plastic pollution is just one of the threats to these ecosystems services, but it’s a serious one. A recent study suggests that by 2050, there could be more plastic than biomass in the world’s oceans. Plastics have entered the marine food chain and are already reaching our dinner plates.
Indonesia’s commitment is part of the UN’s new Clean Seas campaign, which aims to tackle consumer plastics through a range of actions – from cutting down on single use plastics such as shopping bags and coffee cups to pressuring firms to cut down on plastic packaging. Nine countries have already joined Indonesia in signing up to the campaign, including Uruguay, which will impose a tax on single use plastic bags and Costa Rica, which is promising better waste management and education.
But Indonesia’s target of a 70% reduction by 2025 is ambitious. Across the country’s 17,000 islands there is poor public understanding of the problems created by plastic waste.
Companies produce small scale products such as single use shampoo packets and confectionery that are popular in communities where cash flow pressures and habit prevent more sustainable consumption. Add poor waste management infrastructure and the scale of the challenge comes into sharp focus.
During rainy season, thousands of tonnes of rubbish discarded in rivers and waterways washes up on Indonesia’s shores. Heavy machinery is often brought in to clear the tourist beaches of Bali and local communities and non-profits are constantly organising large scale beach clean ups.
Last year, a tax on single use plastic bags was trialed in 23 cities across Indonesia. While the government reported a big reduction in plastic bag use, there was significant resistance both from consumers and industry, according to Siti Nurbaya, Indonesia’s minister for the environment. This is delaying a bill to impose a nationwide tax of not less than Rp.200 (1p) per plastic bag.
Environmentalists will be hoping that the promised funding effectively channels resources and expertise into public awareness and education programmes, improvements in waste management, pressure on industry and initiatives that encourage alternatives to plastic packaging.
The UN campaign reminds us all, however, that plastic pollution is a problems we can all address with some very simple changes in behaviour.