50 years ago, the correct disposal of waste referred more to ensuring you were not a litter lout and kept your town or village looking pretty than anything else. In the 21st century, the need to dispose waste appropriately has become a global problem both for the environment, the future of the planet and human and animal welfare. In countries such as Indonesia, where imported waste is used as a cheap fuel source in the food supply chain, studies show that human lives are being put at risk.
A growing problem
Indonesia has been receiving waste products – mainly from countries in the west – for some time and they recycle that waste by using it within their own food supply chains. On the face of it, that almost sounds admirable. A great way to provide for market demand, allow local businesses to function at cheap rates, and look after the environment at the same time. That is if it worked. But it would appear (according to recent investigations (and especially from research by the Victoria Derbyshire programme on BBC2) that recycling waste products within the food supply chain is having harrowing effects on workers and residents of villages where the factories are situated.
The burning of plastic waste causes toxins to be released
Parts of Indonesia are covered in plastic waste which in turn is ending up in remote villages. Some of this waste is recycled but a huge amount is dumped and burnt. It is the burning of the waste that is causing a gross problem as the toxins within the plastics – once burned – are finding their way into the atmosphere and into the food chain.
The Victoria Derbyshire programme televised on BBC2 in October 2019 highlighted a small village on the Indonesian island of Java (Bangu) which is typical of communities across the whole nation. Over the last 2 years there has been an enormous influx of waste from the UK, the US and Australia for recycling and this waste is being used in food supply chains. Part of the process includes burning the waste. So why is all this waste going to Indonesia?
Fuel for the paper mills
The key here is paper. Indonesia has a large paper industry and some of the world’s biggest paper mills. 40% of the paper needed for processing is imported from abroad in the form of waste. The problem is the bales of paper are arriving with plastic in them. This anomaly has become well known to the natives and they are also aware of a new way in which to earn an income. By sifting through the waste, they can sell on plastic and paper to the specific companies who want it. In this way Indonesia is seeing a shift from rice farming to plastic farming
Relatively speaking this can offer Indonesians a fruitful income. Residents in the village of Bangu sell their plastics to such establishments as tofu factories who use it as a form of cheap fuel. Burning plastics then release highly toxic chemicals called dioxins which can make it into the food chain. Studies have evidenced this is occurring. The chemicals have been found in animal fats. Also, scientists have tested eggs in nearby farms. The results from the tests were shocking. Levels of dioxins were at the 2nd highest levels ever recorded in Asia. 70 times above the safe level set by the European Food Safety Authority. It is known that dioxins can cause reproductive and development problems, damage the immune system and cause cancer.
Moves for change
The positive news is that the government is not just standing by and allowing this to happen. New government policy has led to restrictions being placed on containers with household waste from entering the country. Where lorries have already entered the country – their contents have been seized by customs. But it is still early days and it is uncertain as to whether the government can stop the importation of plastic waste. Even more so, there are no laws or regulations in place to prevent people from burning plastic waste. This is going to be very difficult to police when for many Indonesians this activity (selling plastic waste to business) has become a precious income. This is a great concern. If something is not done soon it can only lead to further distress.
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