Putting plastic into perspective

The influx of waste imports into Indonesia, as well as other Southeast Asian countries, has sparked a debate over how the country should treat its recycling industry. The right policies and technologies will go far in putting the resulting plastic panic to rest.

Earlier in June, Indonesia returned five containers of waste materials imported from the United States back to its home country. The news caught headlines and was greeted with nationalistic fanfare, but it also raised questions. Since when have Indonesia been importing waste?

The fact is: scrap plastic and paper are important raw materials. They are used to make various products, from plastic bags to road pavements. According to a 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, in most scenarios, the manufacturing and use of plastic bags had a lower environmental impact than six alternate bags made from other materials, such as paper and cotton, that are offered as replacement at most supermarkets. The recycling industry, in this case, has been a boon for the environment as it helps reduce global waste.

However, a major change occurred in 2017 when China announced at a World Trade Organization meeting in Geneva that it would ban all imports of nearly all plastic materials. China, which had been importing scrap plastic and paper for its own recycling purposes since the 1980s, concluded that the waste being exported by other countries was becoming too difficult to recycle. China’s decision shook the recycling industry with major waste exporters, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, scrambling to find other countries willing to take in their trash. Indonesia, among many other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia, are among the willing destination. Two years on however, these countries are also realizing the conditions of the waste that were being imported.

It should pose little wonder that Indonesia is mulling a ban on mixed plastic waste. The Indonesian recycling industry, as would any industry, prefer their raw materials – in this case plastic waste – to be free of contaminants such as cardboard. Similarly, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia are also starting to ban the imports of recycle-able plastic scrap to avoid receiving mixed waste that cannot be utilized.

Tipping Point
The ongoing situation above reflects the danger posed by the levels of waste society produce today – over 2 billion tons as of 2016 and is further expected to increase up to 3.4 billion tons by 2050, according to the World Bank – and the urgency behind having a proper, sustainable, waste management program. But is Indonesia’s current response adequate?

Following the June report of containers of waste being exported back to its country of origin, Indonesian cities such as Bali and Batam, have been announcing their decisions to ban single-use plastic containers. The nation’s capital of Jakarta, which is facing what is perhaps a microscopic version of the global situation illustrated in the beginning paragraphs, plans to erect an Intermediate Treatment Facility for the city’s over-7,000 tons of waste produced daily in anticipation of the possible over-capacity of the city’s landfill: the collossal 120-hectare, 70-meter high dumping ground located in adjacent Bekasi.

These responses have spurred a debate among Indonesians on how to best treat the problem. Some are calling for the complete ban of plastic containers and packaging. But many also consider the ban as being impossible to implement because plastic, as a material, is indispensable to the economy. Indeed, plastic prolongs the life of produce by providing barriers to bacteria, provides film to lock in protective gas and serves as a convenient waterproof layer. Some products, such as raw fish, would no longer be available in supermarkets if plastic products were taken out of existence.

Barring a complete change in consumption habits on a global scale, there can be no immediate solution today’s waste problem. However, it is at least heartening that the Indonesian government is not moving backward in this regard. In 2017, President Joko Widodo’s administration issued a roadmap to reduce the country’s waste volume by 30% and to be able to recycle 70% of its waste by 2025, wherein businesses are being engaged to play a proactive and significant role towards achieving these goals.

Developed countries such as Germany and South Korea, are being treated as role models in combating waste. Germany, with their 1972 waste management law, and South Korea, with their Volume based Disposal System Law inaugurated in 1995, are important sources for knowledge-transfers.

On September 19, EKONID will be holding a waste management seminar with speakers coming from the German and Indonesian recycling industry. In the seminar, solutions shall be discussed as to how domestic collection can be improved to increase the supply of recyclable items. Furthermore, new opportunities for the production of packaging solutions shall be discussed. As Indonesia is looking into phasing out single-use plastic packaging items, the domestic recycling industry must innovate and develop new products. To register for the seminar, please click the following link https://bit.ly/2TUY1Pa