The crisis of plastic waste in Indonesia has been so acute that the army has been deployed to provide reinforcements, specifically to deal with the garbage problem in the Citarum River, in West Java. A problem that still haunts Indonesia when the world celebrates Earth Day, which falls on Sunday (22/04).
Rivers and gutters in Indonesia are clogged with bottles, bags and other plastic packaging.
Officials say they seem to be involved in a “battle” against rubbish that has accumulated as fast as they clean it.
The commander of the military unit in the city of Bandung described him as “our greatest enemy”.
Like many developing countries, Indonesia is known not for positive affairs, but because of the hassles in dealing with mountains of garbage.
The explosion in population, among others, has an impact on the rampant containers, wrappers, and plastic bags that replace natural and traditional packaging that is easily biodegradable in nature such as banana leaves.
As a result, efforts by local governments to collect and manage waste have been unable to keep up with the dramatic expansion of waste generated by residents.
And the old culture of throwing rubbish into sewers and rivers shows that any attempt to clean up the environment requires major changes in people’s mindsets.
In Bandung, the third largest city in Indonesia, we witnessed a shocking scene: the concentration of plastic waste that was so thick that it looked like an iceberg and clogged up a major tributary.
Soldiers were deployed on barges using nets to try to decipher plastic bags, food boxes and styrofoam bottles: an effort that seemed futile because all the time more and more plastic waste flowing toward them from upstream.
The head of the West Java Environment Agency, Dr. Anang Sudarna, told me that this problem was ‘impossible to solve without interference from the highest authority’.
That is why he took drastic steps to ask the Indonesian president to send troops, and that step did have results, said Dr. Sudarna.
“The results improved a little … but I was angry, I was sad. I’m trying to think of the best way to solve this … the most difficult is citizen behavior and political will, “Sudarna told BBC environmental editor David Shukman.
For Sergeant Sugito, commander of the army unit at Siliwangi Kodam, the task was new and unusual and “not as easy as turning a hand”.
“My enemy right now is not an enemy in battle, what I’m fighting right now is trash, that is our biggest enemy.”
But he also said that there are plastics that are recognized as valuable, for example, plastic cartons and drinking bottles can be separated from other waste and sold.
Encouraging people to see plastic as a resource is a key step to finding solutions to this crisis.
To encourage recycling, the authorities in the Bandung area support the “environmentally friendly village” initiative. Residents can bring old plastic items and get a small amount of money in return.
The plastic is then divided according to type. In one project we visited, two women patiently cut small plastic bottles and cups because separating different types of polymers resulted in higher prices.
Officials are optimistic that news will spread that the plastic has value and increases awareness of the problem of plastic waste. But they also admitted privately that many residents remained uninterested or unable to see the core of the problem.
Meanwhile, in the only landfill site in Bandung – which only holds a handful of waste produced by the city – unofficial recycling is ongoing.