Indonesia, a country of over 14,000 islands where almost one in ten workers is employed in the tourism industry, has every reason to be worried about the exponential growth of plastic waste that is floating in its rivers and into the sea, washing up on its beaches. After China, the country is the biggest contributor to plastic pollution of the world's oceans. With an average life of 450 years, plastic packaging continues to accumulate, choking rivers, killing birds that swallow the indigestible materials and covering beaches and in a dense carpet of rubbish. In 2017, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched the 'Clean Oceans' campaign, with a pledge to stem the flow of eight million tonnes of rubbish that are being dumped in the world's ocean each year and reduce plastic waste by 70% by the year 2025. It is at the grassroots, however, that some of the most impactful action is being taken. Organisations like Trash Hero, an international action group that boasts 104,000 volunteers, or 'trash heroes', who comb the beaches in 11 countries and dispose of washed up rubbish, are active in Indonesia, trying to raise awareness of the long-term damage caused by plastic waste. Another outfit, 'Bye Bye Plastic Bags', founded by Isabel and Melati Wijsen, two Dutch Balinese teenagers, envisages 'a world free of plastic bags and where the young generation are empowered to take action.' Their campaign has caught the attention of the governor of Bali and their media savvy social media presence has led to 1.3 million people viewing their TED talk online. 'Under 14s only represent 25% of the world's population but a 100% of its future' they say, encouraging people to be mindful of the three Rs: Reduce (waste), Reuse (plastic products), Recycle (raw materials).
And it's not just tourists who are put off by floating rubbish. Fisherman complain that they're increasingly pulling equal amounts of rubbish and fish out of the sea, with many of the fish visibly smaller as a result of ingesting so-called microplastics - tiny fragments of plastic bottles and other
waste products that disintegrate through exposure to ultraviolet light and salt water. Almost half of the world's population depends directly on the oceans for its livelihood and fish is the world's most traded foodstuff. Microplastics risk coming full circle when affected fish are caught and eaten and scientist worry that the vast amounts of plastic that float on the oceans' surface and end up on the beaches are only the tip of the iceberg with millions of tonnes more slowly dissolving into the water. According to Enri Damanhuri of the air and waste management group at Bandung Institute of Technology, one of the main causes of plastic pollution is the lack of decent waste collection and treatment in countries like Indonesia. In urban areas, only 70% of waste is collected and managed. In rural areas the figure drops to 40%. Yet developing countries often have well established recycling structures in place with 'rag pickers' such as Indonesia's 'pemulung', some 2 million of them, representing an underused element of the recycling economy. In some parts of the country they have started to join together in cooperatives, pooling their labour and negotiating prices with wholesalers as a group.
Much of the waste that ends up in the sea comes from rivers like the Citarum River, the world's most polluted. In August 2017, brothers Gary and Sam Bencheghib paddled a canoe along a 70 kilometre stretch of the river and posted a video of their journey on the 'Make A Change World' website which went viral. The call for action went all the way to Joko Widodo, the president, who felt compelled to act.
He declared that he would make the river's water drinkable by 2025 and deployed 4,400 soldiers to coordinate a massive clean-up operation. As part of the operation, educational programmes called 'Zero Waste' have been launched in the countryside where children are encouraged to bring bags of plastic waste to school for which they receive food or milk in exchange. Across the vast archipelago stretching almost 5,000 kilometres from East to West, small and larger initiatives are fighting against the tide of waste that is asphyxiating nature and threatening livelihoods. Laurent Weyl travelled around the country to meet some of the protagonists.