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Is Indonesia on Track to Becoming a Wasteland?

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Did you know, waste can actually be made into money? Waste trade is one of the biggest uses of waste for income and Indonesia is one of the countries that have been actively contributing in reusing waste scrap for industrial purposes. This put us in as the 9th biggest waste importer in 2018.

Heaps of trash in South Tangerang, Indonesia.
Waste is a promising industry.

Source: Tom Fisk [9]

Global waste trade is demanding

A ship brings containers off the shore
Waste trade is commonly practiced by European countries as the exporter and Asian countries as the importer.

Source: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen [10]

In any part of the world, industrial sectors need materials in large numbers in order to keep running, and it leads to finding sources that provide low-cost necessities to keep both costs and profits balanced. This notion became a world-wide system where a particular country’s waste could fulfill another country’s demand and vice versa.

Developed countries such as the United States, Australia, and France are one of the most well known waste exporters, while countries in Asia have been focusing on importing. Indonesia is currently one of the largest waste importers in the world [1]. For instance, Indonesia requires lots of recycled chemical materials for the petrochemical industry [2].

The whole import and export waste system is legal, as long as the exporter had a permit and had abided by both the countries’ law. According to the Indonesian Ministry of Trade Regulation No. 31 of 2016, importing and exporting waste is allowed as long as it is non-hazardous and non-toxic (non B3 - Bahan Berbahaya dan Beracun).

The wastes that were defined as hazardous and toxic were those with explosive, flammable, reactive, infectious, corrosive, and poisonous elements/compounds. These can be found not only in the industrial sectors but also household communities such as detergent and any other household products.

Nevertheless, Indonesia had experienced several cases where the supposedly non-hazardous wastes that were imported contained microplastics, which is contrary to the regulation. One case that happened in February 2019 stated that the materials were found in paper scraps, designated to supply 12 paper factories [3]. Since then, more illegal cases were brought up to local news and garnered the citizens’ attention which criticized the government for lacking a rigid enforcement of the Waste Trade Law.

Wastelands of the world

Wasteland in Bangladesh.
Asia has been the world's most favorite wasteland since 1988.

Source: Mumtahina Rahman [11]

Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, can be considered as the world's wasteland. In fact, a whopping total of 45.15% of waste generated around the world were imported to China from 1988 until 2016 [4].

Due to bad waste management that heavily polluted the country, China called an end to it by banning waste import which started from January 2018. Malaysia, Thailand, and Philippines are three of the few countries that quickly followed China, refusing to be the world's next dumping ground [5].

The statistics in any other Asean countries, however, only experienced an increase in imported waste. When China effectively signed the new law, Indonesia took the lead in global waste imports which includes, amongst others, plastic waste.

The mountains of plastics in Indonesia

Piles of dry waste
Indonesia keeps importing waste until it goes beyond our management capability.

Source: Emmet [12]

In 2018, the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) recorded an increase of 141% (283,152 tons) in Indonesia's plastic waste imports, making it the highest recorded number in 10 years. The data came with an imbalance in the number of waste exports, which decreased to 48% (98,450 tons) [6].

If that is the case, then the possibility is that there are still 184,702 tons of waste left beyond our domestic waste management’s capability. The waste, mostly consisting of plastics, was either burned, dumped, or thrown into the ocean when it is not salvaged or recycled accordingly.

Since then, Indonesia is an importer of 3% (220.000) of the global plastic waste. A figure of 5.8 million tonnes of plastics were produced and imported to Indonesia. Unfortunately, the statistics only proves that under-managed plastic waste harms not only the environment but also the health of Indonesian citizens. This was demonstrated by the sampling of fishes sold in a Makassar traditional market, where 55% were found with toxic plastic debris [7].

A positive outlook from our government

Fortunately, our government has taken this issue seriously and planned a plastic-free country twenty years from now, in 2040. But before we get into that milestone, the growth of plastic waste is assumed to reach 30% by the end of 2025. We must take care of the issue firsthand before achieving such idealized conditions.

There are 5 proposed action plans in making Indonesia a greener place without plastic waste. Reduce or substitute plastic usage, redesign 500,000 tonnes of plastic products and packaging for reuse, double plastic-waste collection by boosting state-funded and informal or private sector collection systems, double the current recycling capacity, and build and or expand controlled waste disposal facilities [8].

This action strategy can lead to a wasteless society with a better life quality. The whole waste trade sector can be a win-win solution to decrease global waste and manage waste management at the same time.

There are other lucrative industries that depend on waste trade to supply them with materials. Waste doesn’t have to be a bad thing when it has value to bring, in fact because waste is a constant issue in our lives, it means opportunity for something great. We strive to be able to utilize these trash, but we have to manage the waste we cannot use, as opposed to only manage the ones we can profit from and turn a blind eye from the rest.


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