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Indonesia and Plastics: A Modern Love-Hate Relationship

Plastics have made modern life possible, but is the age of plastics finally over?

Source: Tom Fisk [8]

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Jakarta — The issue of how to fight plastic pollution has become a mainstay of sustainability initiatives in many countries, including Indonesia. Despite major commitments by the local government, the flow of plastic waste into the nation’s water bodies is projected to grow by 30% between 2017 and 2025, from 620,000 tonnes per year to an estimated 780,000 tonnes per year [1].

This is troubling considering that Indonesia is already the world’s second-largest contributor to marine plastic pollution [2].

What are the root causes of plastic pollution in Indonesia?

According to the National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP), plastic pollution in Indonesia has three interconnected root causes: 1) underdeveloped and underfunded waste management sector 2) avoidable and problematic uses of plastics 3) the low residual value of some plastics.

1) Underdeveloped and underfunded waste management sector

Analysis of Indonesia's waste management

Source: National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP) [1]

The waste management sector in Indonesia is underdeveloped and underfunded given that only 2.6% of the local government’s annual budgets are allocated for the sector [3].

As a consequence, this lack of investment has led to severe inefficiencies. As shown in the chart below, 61% of the total 6.8 million tons of plastic waste produced by Indonesia each year remains uncollected, therefore leading to massive open burning and dumping by local households and businesses [1].

Waste management systems also rarely have segregation of recyclables, which leads to high contamination rates, a lower value for recycling and increased risk of post-collection leakage, which is where 80% of ocean plastic comes from [1,4].

Additionally, most of the plastic that gets collected is transported directly to landfills. While this may be convenient, it has a devastating impact on landfills throughout the country as they have been getting increasingly overwhelmed to the point that Indonesia’s largest and only landfill in Jakarta, Bantar Gebang, will run out of space next year [5].

As of early 2020, Indonesia does not have commercial-scale incineration or waste-to-energy facilities although several have already been planned.

2. Avoidable and problematic uses of plastics

Source: Our World In Data [2]

Plastics are valued materials with a key role in the modern economy, but some of their current uses are avoidable and deeply problematic, which only leads to unnecessary waste, pollution and even health risks.

Take plastic packaging for example. While it delivers economic benefits and increases resource productivity, packaging accounts for almost half of the global plastic waste since the majority gets thrown away after a single-use [2]. A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of natural systems and clogging urban infrastructure [6].

Other examples include asking for plastic cutleries when ordering food online, using a plastic bag when shopping for groceries and serving guests with individual polypropylene (PP) cups of water although there is a refill tank nearby.

Worse, some types of plastics are problematic in the sense that its disposal contributes to numerous environmental hazards. For example, oxo-degradable plastics, which have been falsely marketed as the solution for marine pollution where in reality, they disintegrate quickly into microplastic particles and are considered to have a worse impact on ecosystems and human health than standard plastics [7].


3. Low or no after-use value plastics

Source: McKinsey [4]

The informal, private collection system and the recycling industry tend to focus on the highest-value plastics in the most high-density areas, such as PET and HDPE bottles and containers from commercial and industrial sources [1]. This makes sense since waste picker communities would only earn $0.50 per kilogram of plastic bags whereas they could earn seven times that amount when collecting PET bottles.

The problem is, other plastics that are seen as less valuable in the recycling market are less likely to be collected. According to McKinsey, 80% of plastic waste has low residual value and these plastics are a large percentage of the waste at the disposal facilities from which much ocean plastic originates [4].


Plastics may have made modern life possible, but it’s clear the way we currently manage our plastic waste has a devastating impact on the planet. If Indonesia is serious about protecting the environment, then it needs to take more drastic steps by improving its waste management sector and also using a circular approach to minimize the negative externalities that come from our plastic production and consumption.

There are far too many plastic waste around us and we’ve got no time to waste.

Source: Markus Spiske [9]


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