Indonesia: the Ocean is choking with plastic

© Noëlie Pansiot / Tara Expeditions Foundation

26 December 2017

A  4-day technical stopover in the Indonesian province of Sorong was a sobering moment for the Taranauts. As soon as we disembarked, we were shocked by the extent of the pollution. A city of more than 200 000 inhabitants, Sorong is buried under plastic waste — unfortunately not an exception in Indonesia, the largest archipelago in the world.

 

Water ballet of plastic

Sandbanks bordering the city are overflowing with detritus: disposable objects, oil cans, flipflops, cigarette lighters. The owners of many small shops lined up along the road dump their trash bins directly onto the sandbanks. People just stretch out their arms to get rid of what they no longer want. Hundreds of plastic bottles float down the open channels dug near houses to evacuate sewage. Like 80% of the waste at sea, these bottles were thrown on the ground, then follow the flow of water, ending up in the ocean. Every year between 10 and 20 million tons of waste are dumped in the oceans, 80% of which are plastics.*

 

The second largest polluter in terms of plastic

According to a report published in the Journal of Science (in 2015), the Indonesian archipelago is the second largest polluter in terms of plastic, just after China. Located in the heart of the famous Coral Triangle, the Indonesian maritime territory is home to the highest level of biodiversity in the world. But for how much longer?

Today, increasing numbers of tourists leave Sorong by ferry to reach Waisai, gateway to Raja Ampat, a site famous for scuba diving. From there, visitors take small boats to reach the rental cottages bordering turquoise water on the island of Kri or Gam. But a closer look shows that these pretty beaches lined with sheds on stilts are also littered with objects that the locals don’t bother to pick up.

 

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The scientific team appalled by the accumulation of so much waste in the ocean – © Eric Röttinger / Kahi Kai
Despite the status of Raja Ampat National Park, the situation underwater is equally disturbing: Petroleum products and marine organisms come together daily in a place that was, until recently, a true underwater paradise.

Indonesia faces a problem of massive pollution, and finally the government is recognizing it. At one of the recent global summits on the Ocean, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs announced a plan to reduce marine pollution by 70% in the next 8 years. But in many islands of the archipelago, garbage collection is still just an idea.

 

Levers to regulate production?

Who should be blamed for the situation — consumers, the Indonesian government, the oil industry? What can be done to reverse the trend? In a country where incomes can be quite low, sales of plastic products in individual doses are very successful. The entire population must be made aware of the problem. At the same time, the public authorities must play their role by providing an efficient garbage collection and recycling service.
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Accumulation of all kinds of waste – © Eric Röttinger / Kahi Kai

The oil industry and its lobby

When the question of responsibility is considered on a global scale, some experts blame the oil industry and its lobby. This is the case of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) whose recent report states that plastic manufacturers were aware of the problems caused by their products as early as the 1970s. But a part of the plastic industry continues to deny the facts, fighting regulations and undermining proposed solutions. Even worse, they put the blame on consumers. As for manufacturers, their involvement is limited to the resin granules made from plastic waste and doesn’t take into account the end-of-life of plastic products.

 

For an international treaty

At the Tara Expeditions Foundation, through our actions carried out since 2003, we strive to highlight the scientific facts, the questions and sometimes even the doubts so necessary to challenge accepted ideas. Sharing this mindset means bringing concrete elements to discussions with citizens, entrepreneurs and policy makers.

Today we support the implementation of an international treaty that would reduce this plastic crisis. It seems to us essential to constrain and regulate the impact of plastic throughout the life cycle of products, from their production to the pollution of our oceans.

Noëlie Pansiot

* https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms15611

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