Asean’s plastic shame

A video of a British diver swimming through plastic waste off Bali has shown the extent of the crisis in Indonesian waters.

The film by Rich Horner shows him swimming at the Manta Point diving site about 20km from Bali.

While the media attention has fallen on Indonesia, the whole of Asean must reassess lifestyles and work together to address the collective shame.

Asean’s citizens could look to positive examples of how to cut back on plastic use.

Almost every business in Myanmar has a cold, filtered water dispenser, meaning it is easy to avoid buying bottled water across the country.

Environmental issues should be promoted at Asean summits.

The phrase “mai sai tung” (not with a bag) should be used with Thai vendors who regularly put already bagged products in a larger bag. Thais can be seen dropping their bags into the kingdom’s seas and rivers and idyllic beaches are often strewn with plastic.

Must so many Asean lunches be eaten from a polystyrene box? Street food in South Asia is traditionally served in leaves or paper.

The region groans beneath the discarded consequences of easy living.

Horner’s Balinese video shows how plastic waste coagulates on the surface, mixing in with organic matter to form a slick of floating garbage.

Describing it as “horrifying”, the Bali resident said he had “never seen anything on this scale” before.

Manta Point is regularly visited by manta rays that get cleaned of parasites by smaller fish, but the video shows just one lone manta at the site.

A diving travel adviser in Bali said it was “quite uncommon” to see such a concentration of rubbish.

“We had visitors go out to Manta Point just one day before Mr Horner did and they experienced beautiful waters,” said Adriana Simeonova of the Aquamarine Diving Site.

Last year Bali received almost 5.7 million tourists, according to the island’s administration, which has every reason to address the issue.

Bali is in the Indonesian Throughflow that streams from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean through the straits of Indonesia, meaning the plastic could have travelled from a long distance.

Plastic threatens whales and fish, such as manta rays. It can break down in the water and enter the food chain when filter feeders swallow huge mouthfuls of water to sieve out tiny prey such as plankton but now ingest tiny pieces of plastic.

Indonesia produces about 130,000 tonnes of plastic and solid waste every day, about half of which reaches landfill, according to Bali’s Rivers, Oceans, Lakes and Ecology Foundation.

Much of the rubbish is burned or dumped in rivers and the sea.

Jakarta features several huge rubbish dumps and swathes of plastic usually bob on the capital’s filthy waterways.

“The plastic I saw mainly had Indonesian labelling but because of the current could be coming from anywhere in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia [and] beyond,” said Horner.

“The next day, divers who went to Manta Point report that they saw no plastic at all. Sadly the plastic is continuing its journey, off into the Indian Ocean,” the expat said.

Indonesia is now the world’s second-largest plastic polluter after China. The 17,000-island archipelago is the source of an estimated 10 per cent of the world’s plastic waste.

Bali declared a “garbage emergency” on its beaches last year, sending out 700 cleaners and 35 vehicles, collecting up to 100 tonnes of rubbish a day.

Simeonova said the problem was more severe on Java, which is home to about 60 per cent of Indonesia’s population of roughly 250 million, while making up just 7 per cent of its territory.

“There’s a lot of cleaning initiatives around Bali and regular beach clean-ups, but the thing is that a lot of the rubbish is coming here from Java.”

The problem is most acute during the annual rainy, or “trash” season, which is normally peaks around January and February.

The developed world cannot absolve itself of the plastic shame.

Wealthier nations have been “offshoring” their plastic pollution to East Asia and China recently banned the 7-million tonne annual trade in waste, leading to fears that Asean members could offer to buy western junk, deepening the region’s trash crisis.

Between 10 and 20 million tonnes of plastic is deposited into the world’s oceans, which are becoming a “toxic soup”, according to Sir David Attenborough.

His Blue Planet II BBC series last year showed the deaths of dolphins and albatrosses with the crew finding plastic “in every ocean”.

Asean’s governments appear convulsed by bogus concerns while its beautiful, tropical environment is being destroyed.

Jakarta jails a competent governor on trumped up blasphemy charges, Thailand imprisons cleaners for vague allegations of anti-royal comments on social media and Myanmar seems to spend more energy fretting about the use of the word “Rohingya” than anything else.

Meanwhile, every day tonnes of single-use plastic are dumped in Asean’s oceans and its prehistoric forests are cleared for mines and palm-oil plantations. A proper regional body would be addressing these issues.


Rich Horner’s now-infamous plastic video. Picture credit: YouTube