• Indonesia has become a dumping ground for plastic from Australia, Europe and North America.
  • The waste is burned as fuel by local communities, causing respiratory illness and other long-term health problems for people who inhale the polluted smoke.
  • Research shows pollutants have contaminated Indonesia's food chain.

Every day, people in Western countries in Australia, Europe and North America diligently separate their household plastic waste to be collected and sent for recycling. But much of it isn’t recycled. Instead it is exported – sometimes illegally – to Indonesia and neighbouring countries, polluting the air and affecting the health of local people.

The waste arrives by container, sometimes as a legitimate import, sometimes concealed in other shipments. And it's compounding a domestic plastics problem that generates 9 million tonnes of waste annually.

Plastic is burned on a large scale to ease Indonesia’s overflowing rubbish dumps, while truckloads of waste are sold to local communities.

Local people cherry-pick the best bits to sell to local plastics factories. The leftover piles of poor-quality waste provide a cheap and plentiful fuel source for local businesses.

But there's a hidden cost: the incinerated plastic causes respiratory problems for people who inhale its toxic smoke.

Poisonous plastics

Indonesia has become a dumping ground for vast quantities of the world’s unwanted plastic since China banned imports of foreign plastic waste. In 2018, imports of plastic waste to the Southeast Asian nation doubled over the previous year, to 320,000 tonnes.

How plastic affects Indonesia's food chain.
Toxic chemicals from imported plastic waste find their way into Indonesia's local food chain.
Image: IPEN

Researchers at the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) found harmful chemicals contained in the plastic have contaminated the local food chain, exposing people to toxins linked to serious health problems, such as cancer, diabetes and immune system damage.

In the East Java village of Tropodo, a cluster of tofu factories generates plumes of black smoke from burning plastic fuel. An analysis of local egg samples showed they contained extremely high levels of harmful persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Levels of dioxins were similar to the highest ever recorded in Asia – 70 times higher than the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) recommended safe daily intake.

A persistent problem

Indonesia is barely able to cope with its own waste. The World Bank estimates that one-fifth of the country’s plastic ends up in rivers and coastal waters.

Every 20 minutes, the equivalent of a 10-tonne truckload of plastic is dumped into the sea in Indonesia.
Every 20 minutes, the equivalent of a 10-tonne truckload of plastic is dumped into the sea in Indonesia.
Image: Reuters/Beawiharta

The government has sent waste shipments back, but they are often redirected elsewhere. For example, environmental groups Nexus3 and BAN found that just 12 of 58 containers returned to the United States arrived, Reuters reports. Instead, 38 arrived in India and the remaining containers were tracked to South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, the Netherlands and Canada.

So, the problem persists.

Plastic

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Globally, only 9% of the 9 billion tonnes of plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled. Around 13 million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into our oceans a year, causing $13 billion of economic damage to the planet’s marine ecosystems.

If current plastic production trends continue, IPEN says, 26 billion tonnes will be produced by 2050 – four times more than the world has produced to date.