JAKARTA: When Prigi Arisandi gets into an inflatable boat and paddles down a local river, he looks for one specific item - soiled disposable diapers.
The founder of Diaper Evacuation Brigade and his team of about 30 volunteers regularly travels across the Java island to clean up rivers.
“Diapers are residual waste. But the fact is, if we look at our rivers, we can see them floating everywhere.
“It is disgusting. Rivers are a drinking water source, but ironically we often find diapers in the rivers,” he said.
Indonesia produces about six billion pieces of diapers yearly, and East Java province, where Arisandi is based, produces 15 million pieces daily, he said.
Disposable diapers are known to contain plastic materials.
Indonesia is the world’s second-biggest ocean plastic polluter after China.
A World Bank research published in 2018 showed that 55 per cent of Indonesia’s waste is plastic. Diapers made up about a fifth of the total waste, said Arisandi.
“So I believe if we can clean our rivers of diapers, it can reduce our waste by 21 per cent.
“It is a local problem, but it has a global impact,” he pointed out.
Arisandi and his team began with the Surabaya River in East Java in July 2017. To their surprise, some locals joined them spontaneously.
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After three days, the group of 25 brought the used diapers they collected to the office of Surabaya’s mayor and demanded the government do something about the problem.
Since then, they have travelled through Java, Bali and even Kalimantan to pick up soiled diapers from the rivers.
Arisandi, who is a director at environmental non-governmental organisation Ecoton, said one crucial reason these diapers end up in the rivers was that Indonesia's waste service system only covered 30 to 40 per cent of the population.
“This means that 60 to 70 per cent of Indonesia's population throw their waste carelessly, including diapers,” he said.
In one clean-up session, the group could collect up to a tonne of diapers. There was once they retrieved six tonnes of diapers in two hours from a river at the border of Surabaya and Sidoarjo.
STRONG STENCH FORCED SOME TO QUIT
Prior to a clean-up trip, Diaper Evacuation Brigade usually conducts thorough research on the garbage-filled river. It matches its findings with satellite images and contacts local environmental groups.
When the group combs the rivers, the team members are always dressed in hazmat suits, boots, masks and gloves to ensure their safety.
They pick up the diapers with long tongs or with their gloved hands.
“Actually, baby poop is mostly not infectious. Babies below two years old usually don’t eat a lot of food. So we don’t feel that disgusted about handling the diapers.
“But the problem is the smell. The smell is extraordinary, especially diapers that have just been discarded,” he noted.
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The smell was so strong that some of the volunteers experienced headaches. A few even vomited and quit.
“That’s why we have told some producers that they should put an SOP (standard operational procedures) on how to dispose of waste.
“What also shocks us is, sometimes we come across adult diapers too,” he said.
PUBLIC EDUCATION A PRIORITY
Besides doing clean-ups, Diaper Evacuation Brigade also focuses on educating society.
Arisandi said the biggest challenge is educating people on how to move away from plastic diapers and use a cloth nappy, or if they really must use diapers, how to dispose of them correctly.
He claimed that some communities discarded soiled diapers into the rivers because local belief has it that babies would recover from sickness if their diapers were thrown into the waterways.
Diaper Evacuation Brigade has held numerous seminars about the consequences of throwing diapers into the rivers, such as pollution of water sources and disruption to the ecosystem. It has also opened a shop that sells cloth nappies and set up garbage containers and dropping points for disposable diapers.
It also set up local community groups consisting of housewives who spread awareness about the danger of diapers as some are said to contain chemicals and could harm a baby’s health.
Besides, they explain to people that cloth nappies are more economical and that by using diapers regularly, people in Indonesia would on average spend about 10 million rupiah (US$691) in two years which is about the same price as a standard motorbike.
“People usually want to change if they can feel a direct impact,” said Arisandi, who is the winner of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize for his work at Ecoton cleaning Surabaya's rivers of industrial waste. The Goldman Environmental Prize is commonly known as the Green Nobel Prize.
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ENGAGING THE GOVERNMENT
Apart from diaper consumers and producers, the government is also a key element in ensuring that diapers do not get thrown into rivers, Arisandi said.
Diaper Evacuation Brigade would request the local authorities to pick up the diapers after each river clean-up, but he said there have been instances where their pleas were ignored.
To catch public attention, Arisandi said they then threw the diapers they collected onto the streets. People grew uncomfortable and angry, which forced the authorities to show up to clean up the mess, he added.
In 2019, newly-elected East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa said that one of her targets in her first 99 days as governor was to clean up the diapers in rivers.
It was a big boost to Diaper Evacuation Brigade, Arisandi said, even though the provincial government did not work directly with the group.
At the governor's orders, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras were set up at bridges across the province to deter people from throwing their garbage.
Arisandi said they were delighted to know they had made an impact.
“(In Indonesia,) 80 per cent of our drinking water is from surface water.
“And diapers poison our rivers. What we throw is what we will consume,” he said.
He revealed that according to their research on Brantas river in East Java, the fishes consume particles or microplastics which are similar to the ones found in diapers.
”If we want to be realistic, this is a difficult task. This is not a priority.
“It is a small problem, but if we cannot solve this, what about other problems? We don't have to talk about going to Mars if we cannot even solve the problem of baby poop.”
Read this story in Bahasa Indonesia here.