Plastic waste from Western countries is poisoning Indonesia


(Hermes Rivera, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Johnny Wood, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Indonesia has become a dumping ground for plastic from Australia, Europe and North America.
  • The waste is burned as fuel by local communities, causing respiratory illness and other long-term health problems for people who inhale the polluted smoke.
  • Research shows pollutants have contaminated Indonesia’s food chain.

Every day, people in Western countries in Australia, Europe and North America diligently separate their household plastic waste to be collected and sent for recycling. But much of it isn’t recycled. Instead it is exported – sometimes illegally – to Indonesia and neighbouring countries, polluting the air and affecting the health of local people.

The waste arrives by container, sometimes as a legitimate import, sometimes concealed in other shipments. And it’s compounding a domestic plastics problem that generates 9 million tonnes of waste annually.

Plastic is burned on a large scale to ease Indonesia’s overflowing rubbish dumps, while truckloads of waste are sold to local communities.

Local people cherry-pick the best bits to sell to local plastics factories. The leftover piles of poor-quality waste provide a cheap and plentiful fuel source for local businesses.

But there’s a hidden cost: the incinerated plastic causes respiratory problems for people who inhale its toxic smoke.

Poisonous plastics

Indonesia has become a dumping ground for vast quantities of the world’s unwanted plastic since China banned imports of foreign plastic waste. In 2018, imports of plastic waste to the Southeast Asian nation doubled over the previous year, to 320,000 tonnes.

How plastic affects Indonesia's food chain.
Toxic chemicals from imported plastic waste find their way into Indonesia’s local food chain.
Image: IPEN

Researchers at the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) found harmful chemicals contained in the plastic have contaminated the local food chain, exposing people to toxins linked to serious health problems, such as cancer, diabetes and immune system damage.

In the East Java village of Tropodo, a cluster of tofu factories generates plumes of black smoke from burning plastic fuel. An analysis of local egg samples showed they contained extremely high levels of harmful persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Levels of dioxins were similar to the highest ever recorded in Asia – 70 times higher than the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) recommended safe daily intake.

A persistent problem

Indonesia is barely able to cope with its own waste. The World Bank estimates that one-fifth of the country’s plastic ends up in rivers and coastal waters.

Every 20 minutes, the equivalent of a 10-tonne truckload of plastic is dumped into the sea in Indonesia.
Image: Reuters/Beawiharta

The government has sent waste shipments back, but they are often redirected elsewhere. For example, environmental groups Nexus3 and BAN found that just 12 of 58 containers returned to the United States arrived, Reuters reports. Instead, 38 arrived in India and the remaining containers were tracked to South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, the Netherlands and Canada.

So, the problem persists.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Globally, only 9% of the 9 billion tonnes of plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled. Around 13 million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into our oceans a year, causing $13 billion of economic damage to the planet’s marine ecosystems.

If current plastic production trends continue, IPEN says, 26 billion tonnes will be produced by 2050 – four times more than the world has produced to date.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

European Commission and International Monetary Fund strengthen cooperation to support sustainable development

From the boardroom to the consulting room: pharma’s role in curing gender bias

Why forensic science is in crisis and how we can fix it

When should you self-isolate, self-quarantine or social-distance?

Ending the era of dirty textiles

Why precision medicine is the future of healthcare

China has announced ambitious plans to cut single-use plastic

Rapid action needed for people to meet challenges of changing world of work

Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister, at a 2015 event in Brussels, Berlaymont. (Copyright: European Union , 2015; Source: EC - Audiovisual Service; Photo: Lieven Creemers)

Hungary and Ireland build front to say no to EU tax harmonisation plan

How India’s government can build better contracts with blockchain

Fight against climate change and poverty will fail without overhaul of global financial system, says major UN report

Polio eradication a UN priority, says Guterres in Pakistan visit

EU, Brazil to hold high level Summit in Brasilia

Regional competitiveness and growth: a Gordian knot for Europe

Khashoggi trial in Saudi Arabia falls short of independent, international probe needed: UN rights chief

Cum-ex tax fraud scandal: MEPs call for inquiry, justice, and stronger tax authorities

Commission study finds positive impact of trade agreements on agri-food sectors

Human rights: breaches in Russia, the Rakhine State and Bahrain

Who threatens the lives and livelihoods of Ukrainians?

European Development Days 2013

Here’s why human-robot collaboration is the future of manufacturing

Suicide in postpartum depression

Security Council downsizes AU-UN mission in Darfur, eying eventual exit

Are medical students with equal access to the medical profession?

This is the world’s biggest mental health problem – and you might not have heard of it

Europe turns out more jobs this summer

ITU Telecom World 2018 takes place in Durban, South Africa

Fairer food supply chain: Agriculture MEPs clamp down on unfair trading

EU prepares itself to fight back against hostile propaganda

Final turnout data for 2019 European elections announced

Amazon indigenous groups want to create a nature sanctuary the size of Mexico

Why the Greeks forgave Tsipras’ pirouettes around austerity and voted again for SYRIZA

Even in the world’s richest countries, kids might not have what they need to learn at home

MEPs debate Brexit and relations with China following EU spring summit

Back to school: Schoolchildren to receive milk, fruits and vegetables at school thanks to EU programme

Fair completion rules and the law of gravity don’t apply to banks

Commission statement on the European Remembrance Day for Victims of Terrorism

When did globalization begin? The answer might surprise you

These are the countries best prepared for the fight against cancer

Scoring for the environment: what Mathieu Flamini’s top-flight football career taught him about leadership

Assassinations in Ethiopia amidst regional ‘coup’ attempt, condemned by UN chief

Hospitals among seven health centres attacked in Syria’s north-east

In a state of war: COVID-19 and psychiatric support

Key economic forum in Russia: New technology a ‘vector of hope’ but also ‘a source of fear’ says Guterres

The world is too complacent about epidemics. Here’s how to change

3 things to know about the fight against Alzheimer’s

The Czech economy is thriving but boosting skills and productivity and transitioning to a low-carbon productive model is vital to sustainable and inclusive growth

China Unlimited Special Report: at the heart of Beijing

A few, or rather two, trade and economic alliances may rule our brave new world

New rules make household appliances more sustainable

Here are four steps SMEs can take for long-term success

‘Abhorrent’ ambulance attack in Libyan capital imperils life-saving work, warns UN

At Davos, UN chief urges ‘big emitters’ to take climate action

We can’t wait to act on emissions. Here’s how to get to net zero

LGBTQI+ and medicine: are we prepared to deliver dignified and non-discriminatory health care?

A poor kid died just now. Do you know why?

Latvian economy is thriving, but boosting productivity, improving social protection and transitioning to a low-carbon productive model are vital for sustainable and inclusive growth

Youth Parliament to finalise millennials´ priorities for future of the EU

Yemen ceasefire deal: ‘Potential’ now to restore humanitarian lifeline to millions

Ukraine: turning challenges into opportunities

More Stings?


Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s