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The Cost of Our Throwaway Culture

Plastics ruin our oceans, kill our wildlife and help global warming. But are they truly to blame for all of this?

Source: Brian Yurasits [14]

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Jakarta — Plastics are so indispensable that it’s nearly impossible to imagine life without them. However, in recent years, every country in the world has been finding alternatives due to the adverse effects that plastics have on the environment, wildlife and human health.

The question is: how did the material everyone once dubbed as a miracle become so widely-despised?

1. Ocean pollution

Plastic waste stranded by the ocean
Around 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year

Source: Angela Compagnone [15]

Around 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year and each one of them can last for hundreds of years [1].

In 1992, for example, a shipping container filled with 28,000 plastic ducks was lost after it fell overboard on its way from Hong Kong to the United States. Even today, some of these plastic ducks can be spotted on the shores of Hawaii and even frozen in the Arctic ice [2].

While floating the world’s ocean, these plastics are a major threat to marine wildlife. Seals, whales, turtles and seabirds are often strangled by abandoned fishing gears and now an additional risk is added in the form of plastic [3].

In extreme cases, a dead sperm whale was found ashore in Eastern Indonesia after ingesting 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip-flops and a bag with more than 1,000 pieces of string [4].

That’s not all. Sunlight, wind and wave action break these plastics down into microplastics, which are easily ingested throughout the food chain—including humans.

A study in Makassar found that 55% of fish species in the market are contaminated with microplastics and this raises health concerns considering that microplastics carry higher levels of environmental contaminants up the food chain [3,5].

Economically, marine plastic pollution also has a negative impact on the 3.7 million Indonesians who depend on fishing for livelihoods and 13 million who are employed in the coastal tourism industry [5].

At the current rate, it’s predicted that there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050 [1].


2. Flooding

A road sign getting drowned by flood
Leaked plastics can clog sewers, which increases flood risks and reduces quality of life in general

Source: Kelly Sikkema [16]

Leaked plastics can induce direct economic costs by clogging sewers and other urban infrastructures.

According to a World Bank study, 20% of Indonesia’s plastics end up in rivers and coastal waters, which increases flood risks as drainage systems get clogged [6].

More importantly, waste deposition can easily become a breeding ground for diseases, which would disproportionately impact low-income communities as most of them live in close proximity to rivers and they may not be able to afford treatment if they fall ill.

3. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

Smokestack coming from plants
Across their lifecycle, plastics account for 3.8% of global GHG emissions

Source: Pixabay [17]

Plastics are a major contributor to global warming. Across their lifecycle, plastics account for 3.8% of global GHG emissions, with the production phase leading to most of the emissions [7].

The remaining carbon is captured in the plastic products themselves and its release in the form of GHG strongly depends on the method of disposal. When landfilled, the stored carbon remains sequestered, but any leakage can release it into the atmosphere over many (perhaps hundreds of) years [1,5].

Incineration is by far, is the most popular choice of disposal in Indonesia, with 47% of plastic waste being openly burned each year [5]. However, burning plastic waste also releases dangerous chemicals and heavy metals. Among them are dioxins, furans, lead, nickel, chromium and zinc, which are toxic and damaging to human health [8].

However, the picture gets a bit fuzzier when it comes to waste-to-energy plants. Some claim that they emit the same toxic chemicals and they work against the circular economy by perpetuating the current make-use-dispose mentality [9], but others argue that with low recycling rates and plastic waste continues to rise, why not burn them to generate energy? These are worth considering since Indonesia is planning to build its own waste-to-energy facilities.

If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, GHG emissions by the global plastics sector will account for 15% of the global annual carbon budget by 2050, up from 1% today [7].

4. Health and safety problems

A child picking waste in a landfill
Health risks are higher among low-income communities, especially waste pickers

Source: Hermes Rivera [18]

Additives in plastic spell disaster for human health.

For example, Bisphenol A (BPA) is strongly suspected of causing hormone disruptions and this can subsequently lead to testicular cancer, obesity and/or reproductive disorders [10]. Unborn and young children are particularly vulnerable since their hormone systems are still developing.

There is also phthalates, which is one of the most hazardous types of additives. In the past few years, it has been linked with many health issues, such as asthma, neurodevelopmental issues and type II diabetes [11].

As mentioned before, burning plastics also releases dioxins, to which long-term exposure can potentially increase the risk of reproductive and development issues, damage to the immune system, hormone disruptions and also cancer [12].

Indirectly, waste deposition from floods can also lead to skin infections and diarrhea, which can easily spread and attack anyone, especially children under the age of 5 [6].

Perhaps most important, these health risks disproportionately impact low-income communities, especially waste-picker communities who work in extremely hazardous conditions for low pay. There is substantial evidence showing that life-spans of waste picker communities are significantly below the population average [13].


It’s easy to demonize plastics as the modern-day villain, but these figures above should make us realize that the seat of our plastic waste problem is none other than our make-use-dispose mentality. In order to build a cleaner Earth, we need to change how we use and manage plastics, and this can be achieved through the circular economy where sustainability is the main priority.

Source: Markus Spiske [19]


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