Ocean plastic is one of the most high profile environmental issues at the moment, and the main concern behind the wave of action on plastic in the last couple of years. It’s a problem that arises from specific circumstances, often where consumerism has run ahead of waste infrastructure.
In some parts of the world people have gained access to consumer goods, with lots of disposable elements and packaging, and plastic waste is accumulating. But the waste systems aren’t there to deal with it, and there hasn’t been enough investment in formal bin collections and recycling networks. The result is that plastic gets burned or dumped, and can then end up in the sea. A study by the Ocean Conservancy found that half of the world’s ocean plastic comes from just five countries where this pattern can be observed: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Before we point the finger at these countries, it’s worth remembering that the richer global north exports its waste to them, sometimes illegally. Some of that plastic entering in the oceans in South-East Asia is actually ours, and a study from October this year found that the amount of ocean plastic from the US is five times higher than previously estimated.
Still, those five countries represent the front line of the fight to stop plastic in the oceans, and Indonesia is taking the problem seriously. Their role is perhaps unsurprising when you consider the sheer length of its coastline, and plastic pollution affects fishing communities and tourism as well as the natural world. With that in mind, and its global reputation on the line, Indonesia has a plan to cut marine pollution by 70% by 2025.
Step one of the plan is to stop creating waste in the first place. Among the various initiatives are a ban on plastic bags that came into force in January of this year, and regulations requiring companies to reduce their use of plastic. The government is committed to working with industry to develop a circular economy for plastics, supporting the re-design of packaging to make it recyclable. Some regional administrations have gone further and faster, with Bali leading the way and banning a whole range of single-use plastics, including styrofoam packaging and straws.
Expanding capacity for dealing with plastic waste is also a major priority. At the moment 39% of plastic waste is collected, and the plan is to double that to 80% by 2025. That will involve investment in recycling capacity, but Indonesia won’t be turning its back on informal recyclers and waste pickers in the process. As in many developing countries, Indonesia has a well established informal waste sector, often with very vulnerable people eking out a living from waste. Rather than sweep it away in modernising projects, the challenge is to support pickers and ensure their safety, rights, and decent pay.
There’s a scientific side to all of this too, because in order to stop plastic entering the oceans, you have to know how it gets there in the first place. Indonesia has a major scientific study underway to chart the flows and currents that bring plastic down rivers and into the sea. In partnership with the French government and the World Bank, sensors and computer modelling are used to map the sources of plastic, how it drifts, and where it comes ashore – because 90% of ocean plastic in the study does wash up somewhere. This modelling will show where to intervene and stop plastic entering the seas, and where to focus cleanup efforts.
There are complicating factors. Corporations, fossil fuel companies and plastic producers will have something to say, and as we have seen in Africa recently, they may try to obstruct action on plastics. Waste imports are another issue, both legal and illegal, and they have risen dramatically since China closed its doors to scrap. This is where we have a role too. Developed countries have the resources to deal with their own trash and no excuse for dumping it elsewhere. Investment in a circular economy in Britain will create jobs and opportunities locally, while supporting places like Indonesia in their goal of reducing ocean plastic.