At the fifth Our Ocean Conference (OOC), held in Bali on 29–30 October, Indonesia – the world’s second-largest plastic polluter after China – affirmed its commitment to sustainably managing and protecting the ocean.
“The OOC must be the driving engine behind a global mental revolution to nurture our oceans,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo, listing plastic waste, water pollution, destruction of coral reefs, warming of sea temperature and sea level rise as critical concerns.
The conference – attended by high-level government officials and representatives of various private sector businesses, civil society and philanthropic groups – generated 287 pledges valued at more than USD 10 billion to protect and improve the health of global oceans. Commitments borne from all OOCs total USD 28 billion to date.
Given the Conference’s setting, Indonesian ocean protection efforts were in the spotlight this year, at the heart of which is an ambitious goal for the archipelago to reduce its plastic pollution by 70 percent by 2025. A rising tide of plastic waste in the country and across South Asia threatens marine ecosystems and local economies dependent on fishing and tourism. In Indonesia and elsewhere, plastic bags, containers, straws, cups, packaging and other forms of debris are flushed into the ocean and tributary rivers and streams.
UN Clean Seas, a United Nations initiative to tackle marine plastic pollution, estimates more than 13 tons of plastic garbage accumulates in oceans annually, including some 5 trillion plastic bags. According to its government, Indonesia alone used 9.8 billion plastic bags in 2016.
“The country is just embarking on this journey,” says Ann Jeannette Glauber, the World Bank’s lead environmental specialist in Indonesia, who attended the conference alongside representatives from 25 agencies involved in ocean health. “There is some good news. Several cities including Banjarmasin [South Kalimantan’s provincial capital] have implemented – or are about to implement – plastic bag bans. The Ministry of Finance is considering a plastic bag tax to encourage consumers to use less plastic.”
Local industry is taking action as well, she said. Aqua Danone, Indonesia’s largest bottled water producer is developing bottles made entirely of recycled materials, in a bid to recycle more plastic than they produce.
Even with these collective efforts, changing consumer habits and business practices remains a work-in-progress for the country, which is the world’s fourth most populous. There is a need for more policy reform, improved waste management, and stronger incentives for people to adopt more ‘green’ and reusable materials into their lifestyle habits.
“The most important action to reducing marine debris is in improving solid waste collection and management,” says Glauber, who coordinated the World Bank’s participation in the OOC and moderated a session of East Asian countries interested in collaborating on marine debris. “Indonesia has launched a USD 1.2 billion national solid waste action plan as a first step in this direction. The project supports solid waste collection, disposal and recycling in up to 50 Indonesian cities.”
The lifespan of plastic debris can be up to 1,000 years, and the material imperils vulnerable coral reefs, washes up on scenic beaches and collects in a growing garbage patch known as the Pacific Gyre in the northern Pacific Ocean. One study controversially claims there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050. Once in the ocean, plastic can break down into micro-sized pieces eaten by fish; and once consumed, chemicals in plastic can impede brain development and fertility of fish and animals. Concerns are also high that they have numerous adverse effects on the hormonal, nervous and immune systems of consuming humans.
Showing something of a silver lining of the increasingly plastic-dark sea, the Conference highlighted innovations helping reduce debris. Cassava and sugarcane fibers are both being touted as environmentally friendly materials that can help grow the bioplastic sector. Red seaweed, which is abundant in Indonesia, is another option.
Several grassroots efforts are also working to reduce plastic waste and increase recycling. The global group Trash Hero uses social media in Indonesia to mobilize locals to pick up trash. Since 2011, Project Clean Uluwatu has been working to keep the island’s southern shores clean by providing trash cans to villages, food stalls and public areas, while Bye Bye Plastic Bags was launched in Bali in 2013 and has since blossomed into a youth-driven global movement stressing education, hands-on projects and political advocacy.
“Plastic bags were something we saw given away everyday, and they are not necessary,” say sisters and teenage co-founders of Bye Bye Plastic Bags Melati and Isabel Wijsen. “We always bring a reusable bag with us, so why can’t others too? Plastic bags are also something that the consumer has control over saying ‘no’ to. It seemed like a good place to start.”