Asean’s plastic shame 

Asean’s beaches, seas and waterways continue to choke on plastic waste, with much of it imported from the developed world. Idyllic spots throughout the biodiverse region are being soiled with plastic junk. 

With one of the world’s longest coastlines and the planet’s fourth-highest population, Indonesia is the second-largest marine plastic polluter after China.

A global study, part-funded by Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit foundation that is testing systems for removing plastic from oceans and rivers, found the most contaminated river was the Ciliwung, which flows through Jakarta. 

It was monitored in three places with the lowest count at 15,655 pieces an hour and the highest at 21,504. 

The study’s lead author, Caroline van Calcar of the Delft University of Technology described the quantity of plastic in the Ciliwung as “insane”.

“It was like one big stream of plastic — you could hardly see water,” van Calcar said

The scholar called on the west to address whether it was acceptable to export shipping containers filled with plastic rubbish to Asean, which is struggling to manage its waste.

Firms involved in exporting plastic around the globe could not be trusted to dispose of waste properly, van Calcar argued.

“When you see how much plastic is in the rivers it shows that [Asean’s governments] don’t have an accurate waste management system because otherwise, their rivers would not be so dirty,” the scientist said.

“I don’t see how they can receive huge amounts of plastic from Europe while they cannot handle their own waste.”

The Banjir Kanal Timur in Indonesia was also recorded with 10,625 pieces of plastic an hour. 

Elsewhere in Asean, the Saigon River in Vietnam carried up to 12,309 pieces an hour, Thailand’s Chao Phraya had 5,340 and Malaysia’s Klang was recorded with 3,310.

The study found plastic pollution was up to 500 times worse in Asean’s rivers than in European waterways.

There is evidence of a regulatory response in Indonesia. 

The Indonesian government says it will limit single-use plastic in an attempt to reduce ocean plastic waste by 70 per cent by 2025.

Regulations due to be implemented in the next few months include requirements for packaging producers to reduce plastic waste production by at least 30 per cent in 10 years.

“This is mandatory. They may limit, reuse, redesign the packaging or take it back for recycling,” said Novrizal Tahar, the waste management chief at the environment ministry.

He said the authorities in Jakarta would require regional administrations throughout the archipelago to enforce limits on single-use plastic.

“We will gather regional heads to encourage this restriction policy to be implemented early next year,” Tahar said. 

Across the globe, the worst plastic pollution rates recorded in the Ocean Cleanup study were in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. All four countries began taking more plastic packaging from the west after China banned imports of waste plastic in early 2018.

The researchers measured floating plastic debris at 24 sites on rivers in seven European and Asian countries. Volunteers were recruited to stand on bridges and count plastic items and sampling nets were also used.

The Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) said plastic bags and polystyrene foam, which takes at least 500 years to decompose, were the most common items found in the waters around Indonesia. 

The institute said 59 per cent of the marine waste released from Jakarta’s nine rivers consists of disposable plastic.

Styrofoam was largely found dumped rather than plastic bottles, which had a higher value, said LIPI’s chairman Laksana Tri Handoko.

“Glass bottles and plastic bottles are most likely to be picked by waste-scavengers as they could be recycled, while Styrofoam could not be reused,” Handoko told the media. 

He called for a ban on polystyrene packaging. “But, the very first step we need to take is not littering as it will pollute our ecosystem,” Handoko added. 

Bans on plastic bags have been enforced in Banjarmasin, Balikpapan and Bogor and on the island of Bali.

The policy is credited with cutting plastic waste by 2-3 tonnes per day in Banjarmasin.

Although the problem is being felt in Asean’s waters, the west plays a significant role in the environmental crisis. 

Britain, for example, exports about two-thirds of the plastic packaging it supposedly collects for recycling. The largest quantities go to Malaysia, which received 105,000 tonnes in the year preceding October 2018, a 68-per-cent increase on the year before.

The global trade in waste plastic has to be stopped but also Asean should learn from the European Union, which has taken collective action to address environmental crises. 

Asean’s governments must work to clean up plastic waste and educate their populations about the impact of allowing garbage to be strewn across the region. 

But it is not acceptable to simply blame failures of governance. If people devoted a few minutes per day to collecting plastic junk, the issue would be improved immeasurably.  


Asean must start refilling water bottles rather than opting for single-use plastics. Picture credit: Asean Economist