SURABAYA, Indonesia: The village of Bangun is surrounded by greenery - stretches of lush paddy fields and a slow-moving river. But within its confines, a dystopian environment of piles of waste, black smoke and twisted metal has emerged.
Locals traipse through street blocks entirely consumed by discarded household goods, food packaging and personal care products. Slowly, this village is being swallowed by the plastic of the developed world.
Even though the surroundings look grim, most villagers here welcome the plastic. They have become addicted to the jumble sitting outside their front doors and inside their garden courtyards, despite the damage to the aesthetics of their home and the potential impact on their health.
Farming the fields has become secondary for many who now rely on the income that is possible from picking through never-diminishing mountains formed by drinking water bottles from Korea and biscuit packets from the UK. Others have sold their land or repurposed it for this new occupation.
“I used to just be a farmer but then I decided to sort garbage. It’s quite profitable and I can earn money once a week,” said Supriadi, a 42-year-old local, as he scavenged through a small sea of colourful scraps outside his house.
As he spoke, a truck from a nearby factory arrived to deliver an entire load of new plastic for him to examine. It lifted its tray and offloaded an enormous heap all across his small flank of land.
It looks like garbage, but everything has value. Supriadi paid for this delivery, he explained, and expects to at least double his money once he picks through it for prized items, like metal scraps from cans and wiring. Whatever is left can be sold to local tofu factories which burn plastic for fuel.
“I have no idea where all this garbage comes from and if they are actually from foreign countries. All I care about is that we need money,” said Supriandi’s neighbour, Mbah Bodo.
Bangun could be a poster child for the failings of the global recycling system. Yet its place at the centre of Indonesia’s plastic battle is long entrenched.
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Plastic began to filter into the lives of locals in Mojokerto regency, about 40 kilometres from Indonesia’s second-largest city Surabaya, decades ago as industrial development began to encroach on agricultural land.
Today, Bangun is in the vicinity of four paper mills, which spew thick fumes into the air through tall exhaust towers. Factories like these across Indonesia are major importers of waste paper, to produce things like industrial packaging, chipboard and corrugated cardboard.
But increasingly, and especially since last year, shipments arriving at Indonesia’s ports from around the world have contained dirty secrets.
The shipments are being packed full of other items - the waste ending up in Mojokerto - and are taking advantage of Indonesia’s lenient import policies.
Based on extensive field research, environmental non-government organisation Ecoton estimates that about 20 per cent of a typical waste paper shipment is made up of other items, normally the type thrown out for recycling by households and businesses in other countries.
Under a decree by the Trade Ministry from 2016, paper scrap is permitted to enter the country without being subject to inspection by authorities. Other items, like garbage, are not meant to be allowed to enter Indonesia.
“This is smuggling. This is illegal. It’s unhealthy,” said Ecoton’s executive director, Prigi Arisandi. He says historically, contaminant levels might have expected to be purely incidental - about 2 per cent - not a deliberate injection of garbage for Indonesia to contend with.
But the system changed after China made a decision in January last year that saw the world’s recycling system thrown off its axis.
Long the collectors and custodians of much of the plastic waste from around the world, China’s decision to stop importing such items set off confusion among other countries reliant on shipping their recycling there.
China was conscious of the environmental degradation happening locally to its air and water and subsequently shut its doors.
In the wake of the policy shift, recycling items began to visibly stack up in places like the United States and Australia, and a solution would soon be forged in Southeast Asia by importers keen to claim a stake in the lucrative trade. Processing certain materials remains highly profitable and much is still sold on to China in cleaner forms.
The amount of plastic suddenly being re-routed to countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines exploded. In just two years, the waste plastic import figures increased by 171 per cent among ASEAN nations, according to a study by Greenpeace.
In Malaysia, where several Chinese operators were documented to have begun operations, the impact was profound with imports in 2018 reaching 872,897 tonnes, a more than 300 per cent increase from 2016.
In Indonesia, the amount surged nearly 250 per cent over just 12 months, with the biggest contributors being the US, Canada, Italy, South Korea and the UK. It was a burden that the country, already struggling to contend with its own domestic waste and the second worst contributor to ocean plastic, was not ready for.
“Indonesia is in the phase of emergency for plastic problems.” Muharram Atha Rasyadi, the Urban People Power Campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, told CNA.
“We are overwhelmed to handle domestic waste so there is no room for additional waste from foreign countries.”
As reality has started to bite and communities feel the strain of garbage invading their land across the region, a pushback has begun.
In the Philippines, renewed pressure and brinkmanship on the behalf of President Rodrigo Duterte resulted in 69 containers of waste being repatriated to Canada, after it sat stranded and stinking at a Manila port for months. The 2,400 tonnes of waste had been mislabelled as plastics for recycling.
Amid the ensuing diplomatic row, President Duterte made it clear his country would not tolerate becoming a dumping ground for the world’s waste. In his usual firebrand style, he threatened to go to war with Canada, or hand deliver the containers back himself.
As the shipment set sail for home last month, it was trumpeted as a big victory for Southeast Asian countries, drawing a red line across a looming crisis.
READ: Commentary: Why recycling, less single-use plastics are not the answers to our plastic scourge
Since then, Malaysia and Indonesia have seized upon the momentum, with the former planning to send up to 3,000 tonnes of waste back to its origin. Last week Indonesia rejected 49 containers, reportedly including garbage and hazardous materials. Thailand is also planning to propose a blanket ban on plastic imports next year.
But without proper regulations, environmentalists fear that sending back shipping containers will be only symbolic.
“They just follow the trend. The Philippines sends, Malaysia sends, so yeah, we have to send too,” said Prigi Arisandi. He wants the Indonesian government to do proper environmental assessments of the impact of plastic, introduce national regulations and push for a unified ASEAN response to the problem.
The Environment and Forestry Ministry has already said it would tighten rules about waste paper importation and crack down harder on those breaking the rules. Prigi said those profiteering from the “greed” of the business need to be held accountable.
“The importers and exporters have the responsibility to tackle this problem. They already have an agreement, and they know there is plastic inside. They already know that plastic is the biggest problem for the globe.”
‘IT’S VERY SCARY FOR US’
In Mojokerto, and the wider, heavily populated province of East Java, the concerns are rising. At stake are the impact on water, land, air, food and the cumulative effects on human health.
There are health worries for the plastic-picking residents of Bangun and other similar villages. Medical checks are being performed on a regular basis but by the numbers, they reflect just a small number of people.
More broadly though, there is a risk of microplastics - tiny pieces of plastic debris - spreading through a population of millions. Ecoton is conducting local research that paints an alarming picture for the future, especially given the proximity and strategic importance of the Brantas River.
“It’s very scary for us because in the downstream we’re using this water as the raw material for our drinking water. Eighty per cent of our local fish is contaminated with microplastic,” Prigi said.
“We have a problem with dioxins when we burn the plastic, We have chemical compounds in our soil because they’re dumping in the open ground and when it rains it absorbs into our water.
“The microplastics are becoming a trojan horse, because they absorb the pesticides, the heavy metals and the detergents and they will go inside our food, our water, our body,” he said.
Local authorities say the situation is frustrating - their small district is bearing the brunt of a global problem, and the locals seem to not mind at all.
“They welcome the waste because it is profitable. It does not matter that it will harm their health,” said Mojokerto Regency Environmental Agency Head Zainul Arifin. “Paddy fields are converted into garbage. Residents sort the waste in front of their house.
“It doesn’t matter if their house looks luxurious and they have a car, the waste sorting still takes place in front of their house. Some of them are even able to build a villa and send their kids to take doctorate degrees,” he said.
READ: ‘Cannot sell ... so they burn’: What’s next in the uncertain future for plastic waste in Singapore?
Even if the risks are known, the locals are adamant that they are willing to ride the world’s trash wave to relative prosperity rather than look for an alternative. While most people might bemoan plastics being burnt in open pits in their neighbourhood, for Bangun it is seen as a blessing.
“If we don't have garbage here to be sorted, it's going to be more dangerous because many of us will earn less or even lose our main income. That's not good for the society,” said Mbah Bodo.
“If the government decides to send the trash back, it will cause turmoil. People will be angry. It's better to work like this rather than working in a factory. I'm free.”
(Additional reporting by Winda Charmila)