Cimaja, Indonesia – Pro surfer Dede Suryana drops into an 8ft wave face, turns hard at its base and pulls into a barrel. Seconds later he emerges from behind the curtain of water, into the early morning sun. By the shore, palm fronds sway gently in the offshore breeze and swallows dart from tree to tree.
At first glance it’s a tableau of West Javan paradise, but look closer and other details catch the eye. A used Pocari Sweat bottle bobs, wrappers for Indo Mie instant noodles float nearby, and a limp plastic bag drags on another surfer’s leg rope.
Today is a relatively clean day at Cimaja, but when the wet season rains hit, the rivers empty and swamp the break in hazardous debris. Another local wave named “Lojis” has been rendered nearly unsurfable by the chronic accumulation of synthetic detritus.
“Used diapers, sanitary pads – you see it all out here, but plastics are most common,” says Dede. “There are a lot of villages upstream, and they just use the river as a dump.
“You’re thinking, is the trash old or new? If it’s really old then maybe the water will have washed it clean, but if it’s new … well …” he pauses then laughs. “You’re sort of worrying if you could get a disease.”
Across the archipelago, Dede has witnessed similar scenes to those at Lojis, and was famously photographed on a giant “wave of trash” in the Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java. The image, which went viral in 2012, is a fitting icon of Indonesia’s biblical plastic rubbish problem – described last year as a “state of emergency” by a senior official from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
Trying to address Indonesia’s rubbish problem
To address the issue, the government recently introduced a plastic bag levy, to be trialled in 23 major cities. If successful, the charge will be rolled out nationwide in June.
Currently the levy will apply to branded retailers such as Indomart and other store chains. In Jakarta, the levy has been set at 200 rupiahs, or $0.02 per bag, but other city administrations are free to charge more or less.
Environmental campaigners have generally welcomed the move but complain that the levy is too low and that plastic bags are only one aspect of Indonesia’s waste management crisis.
Despite these issues Tiza Mafira, the director of the Plastic Bag Diet Movement, who began the petition calling for the levy in 2013, is upbeat about its impact.
“It’s prompted a discussion and is leading to a better understanding about waste,” she says.
In many developed nations decades-long public awareness campaigns have stigmatised littering, and plastic packaging is widely considered cheap, tacky and damaging to the environment.
But in Indonesia those awareness campaigns have not been fought.
Consequently, concern for the effects of plastic waste is low, and attitudes towards waste disposal and littering are often flippant.
“Most people don’t care in Indonesia, this is the problem,” Dede says. “Fishermen in particular really don’t understand. I’ve been on many boat rides for surf trips and they just throw all their rubbish straight into the sea.”
To make matters worse, plastic packaging is considered modern and preferable to organic wrappers, which are perceived as rustic and outmoded.
In years gone by, throwing organic waste behind one’s home, or by the side of the road, was not problematic. Now plastic food packaging is disposed of as casually as the banana leaves that were traditionally used to wrap rice parcels.
No sustainable solutions
But while such attitudes have contributed to Indonesia’s plastic waste crisis, the government’s inadequate collection and disposal services are also to blame.
“There is no enabling system,” says Yuyun Ismawati. A waste management expert at BaliFokus, a Bali-based environmental NGO. “If the government ran these services in a proper way then people would change.
“Charging bags to the consumer isn’t fair, in my opinion.”
For Yuyun the new plastic bag levy doesn’t address Indonesia’s main waste disposal issues. Firstly, because plastic rubbish only accounts for 14 percent of Indonesia’s total solid waste. And secondly, because the levy currently does not apply to unbranded retailers – like street markets, roadside kiosks and food carts, among others – who account for 90 percent of the 9.6m plastic bags handed out in Indonesia every day.
“The levy misses the point,” Yuyun says.
Countering these criticisms, Tuti Mintarsih, director-general for toxic materials and waste management at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said that the levy was still in its trial phase and would be extended to unbranded retailers in June, when the price of plastic bags would also be re-evaluated.
Tuti explained that the bag levy was part of Clean Indonesia 2020, a broader government initiative, mandated by the 2008 Municipal Solid Waste Law, intended to promote the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.
As part of the scheme, better waste disposal is being promoted through a growing network of “trash bank” facilities, currently 3,800 nationwide, where citizens may exchange recyclables for cash. There has been significant uptake of the scheme since it began in 2011, with a reported national monthly transaction value of 34.4 billion rupiahs, or $171m, as of October.
But with the programme’s risible operational budget of 15 billion rupiahs ($1.2m) – “very little” by Tuti’s own admission – the ministry has scant hope of creating comprehensive recycling services for a geographically scattered population of 250 million people. Awareness of the trash bank scheme is also poor, with many people in West Java unaware of its existence.
“What the government needs is a genuinely comprehensive strategy, that addresses all types of waste and coordinates between the relevant government bodies,” says Yuyun.
As it appears unlikely that Indonesia will be clean by 2020, those who care about the plastic rubbish issue are forced to take matters into their own hands.
“Now we have a beach clean-up every Friday,” Dede says.
“But,” he pauses and smiles, “we burn it, because there’s no rubbish truck to take it away.”