In monsoon season, thousands of metric tons of plastic debris wash ashore on the Indonesian island of Bali. The situation was so bad in December 2017 that the local government declared a “trash emergency” on the island’s most popular tourist beaches.

It’s a stark reminder of the world’s marine pollution problem: every year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean.

Indonesia is the second-biggest contributor to ocean plastic after China, with some estimates suggesting it is the source of about 10% of global plastic pollution. Four of the country’s rivers are among the 20 most polluted in the world in terms of plastic waste.

The Indonesian government says it will reduce marine waste by 70% by 2025 and has pledged to spend up to $1 billion a year on cleaning up its rivers and seas.

Now it has enlisted the help of the country’s two largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which together have more than 100 million followers.

In a new initiative, clerics from NU and Muhammadiyah will raise awareness about plastic waste and encourage their followers to switch to reusable bags.

Indonesia’s 260 million population uses an estimated 9.8 billion plastic bags per year – many of which wash into rivers and end up in the ocean, according to Indonesian environment and forestry ministry figures reported by the Jakarta Post.

The initiative follows NU’s launch of a program broadcast online in which clerics connect waste management with religious norms in their sermons.

Image: Statista

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Spreading through the ecosystem

Single-use plastics, in the form of plastic bags, cups, straws, bottles and cutlery, are part of daily life in Indonesia. At the same time, levels of awareness in the country about recycling and the environmental impact of plastic are low.

A video shared on social media of a diver swimming through garbage off the island of Nusa Penida near Bali brought Indonesia’s struggle against plastic waste to a wider audience.

The world’s largest archipelago is home to a large part of the Coral Triangle, one of the most diverse marine habitats on Earth. But plastic pollution is a major threat to these coral reef ecosystems, which provide food, income and protection from storms to millions and are attracting growing numbers of tourists.

If the global problem continues unchecked, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Birds, turtles, fish and other ocean creatures swallow it or become entangled in it. The plastic moves up the food chain and eventually finds its way onto our plates.

The behaviour of consumers everywhere needs to change. Getting religious leaders to preach on the problem of plastic waste is just one way of nudging people to change their habits.