How A Picturesque Fishing Town Became Smothered In Trash

As the world struggles to cope with its garbage, places like this suffer the most.

MUNCAR, Indonesia ― You smell the beach here before you see it. The stench of decay hits you at around 100 yards.

A layer of plastic trash several feet thick covers the black sand. Millions of moldy diapers, ratty shopping bags, sauce and sugar packets, degrading detergent bottles, old shoes and toys clump together at the water’s edge.

In March, when HuffPost visited, the beach wasn’t even at its worst. Seasonal rains had washed much of the debris carpet out to sea, said Khoirul Anam, head of the town’s association of fishermen. “The plastic is so deep it makes the sea shallow,” he added.

This beach in Muncar, an otherwise picturesque fishing town in the East Java province, is a garbage hotspot. Muncar sits at the mouths of four rivers, which carry waste from dozens of small towns, villages and factories to the sea. Thousands of tons of plastic flow out from the port each year, mixing with yet more industrial and household trash that washes over from the neighboring island of Bali.

The trash problem here is getting worse, despite recent cleanup efforts by the community and an influx of foreign money. Similar scenarios are playing out across Indonesia, a country that has become emblematic of the world’s addiction to disposable plastic goods. 

Children playing amid plastic waste at Muncar port.
Children playing amid plastic waste at Muncar port.

Muncar, home to 134,000 people, is just one of many towns in the country that have failed to cope with its plastic garbage in the last decade. Muncar’s streets look clean but its rivers and canals are clogged. As Indonesia’s economy has grown, plastic packaging has become ubiquitous. Rudimentary collection systems have been overwhelmed and most people carry on disposing of their trash the way they have always done ―  by throwing it straight into rivers.

While this may seem like a local problem, there are bigger forces at work. Some of the items found on Muncar’s beaches are made by Indonesian companies; but a high percentage of the plastics dumped here are branded by giant food and drink corporations like Nestle, Unilever and Coca Cola.

Plastic trash, most of which doesn’t biodegrade, can hang around in the environment for decades or more, breaking into ever-smaller pieces. It has been found to choke wildlife and can potentially carry diseases; it also gets into the food chain as fish and other animals eat it and then become meals for bigger predators.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, with nearly 260 million people, is second only to China for dumping plastic waste, according to a 2015 study published in Science. A more recent study in Nature suggested that nearly 15 percent of all the plastic which gets into the world’s oceans from Asia comes from Indonesia, and much of that from the island of Java.

The heat is now on Indonesia to clean up its act, and there are signs of change. The embarrassed central government has pledged $1 billion a year to reduce marine debris 70 percent by 2025. International banks, conservation groups and food and drink companies are offering additional funds to help communities curb the amount of plastic reaching the sea.

Indonesia has become a laboratory of social and technological ideas about how to reduce plastic waste. Cities which are running out of space for landfill dumps are setting up “banks” for people to bring recyclable plastics. Mass beach clean-ups led by youth are now common, and awareness of the problem is growing.

But the tide of plastic is still rising, with no sign of turning.

Small Towns Are Struggling

Muncar’s mayor, Lukman Hakim, wasn’t prepared for the rubbish crisis when he was appointed to the fishing port in 2016.

“I was horrified,” he told HuffPost. “The plastic affects everybody. It hurts the economy as well as people’s health, and it adds to flooding because it blocks the drains. The fish catch is declining because the plastic sits on the feeding ground of the fish. It interferes with the propellers of the fishing boats.”

A man walks on a beach filled with plastic waste at Muncar port.
A man walks on a beach filled with plastic waste at Muncar port.

In the days before plastic, it made perfect sense for people to rely on flowing water to remove their trash, according to Husnul Chotimah, head of the local government’s Environment Agency in the regional capital of Banyuwangi, near Muncar.

“They only generated small amounts of mainly organic waste, which they habitually threw into a river,” she told HuffPost. “That has changed. Towns like Muncar do not have the money and are not equipped to collect and process the huge quantities of plastic waste now being generated.”

The regional government doesn’t have the money to keep up with the scale of the problem either, said Chotimah.

“There are 1.75 million people in this region of the country,” she told HuffPost, and her agency’s budget for waste collection and treatment is only $1 million.

“It’s not enough,” she laments. “The problem is now very serious. We have 108 miles of coast to protect.”

Mayor Hakim doesn’t just want a quick beach clean-up so much as a complete change in attitude and culture.

“We need education and awareness,” he said. “We need a collection system and infrastructure to process the waste. We need barriers across the rivers to stop the waste going out to sea.”

Hakim also sees an opportunity to limit the amount of nonessential plastic available. Plastics, of course, are necessary in certain economic sectors, such as health care services, but there are many examples of excessive packaging on display in shops and restaurants. Manufacturers deserve a large portion of the blame for this, Hakim told HuffPost. He added that the national government needs to take the problem more seriously and clamp down.

“We need government to legislate to ban plastic bags and make the producers of the plastic more responsible,” said Hakim.

Bali, an international tourist destination, already has a ban on plastic bags, as does the city of Bogor, near Jakarta. 

“We are optimistic that we can clean up the town,” Hakim said of Muncar. “But we need help.”

The Warriors of Waste go door to door collecting garbage from the community at Tembokrejo village in Muncar.
The Warriors of Waste go door to door collecting garbage from the community at Tembokrejo village in Muncar.

For now, help has come from Project STOP, a $15 million joint initiative of European investment company Systemiq working with global plastic, food and oil industry partners Borealis, Borouge, Nestle, the Indonesian authorities and others. Their aim is to find a series of long-term, profitable solutions to prevent Indonesian plastic waste getting into the sea.

HuffPost followed the “Warriors of Waste,” a group of cheerful young Muncar women employed by STOP to go from house to house in the narrow back streets of the town picking up household waste. The Warriors earn a few dollars a day for their efforts.

They can’t charge much because households have little money to contribute. But they make a clear impression on the locals they reach.

“Yes, I used to throw my rubbish into the river. Everyone did,” said Ti Ama, a Muncar resident who now pays for her waste to be collected. “The new system is better. The streets are cleaner. I prefer it, but I can’t pay more than $1 a month.”

Project STOP has been in Muncar a year, employs nearly 100 people, educates children and collects and sorts 11 tons of both organic and inorganic waste a day from 9,000 of the town’s 40,000 households.

It’s a start.

Black soldier fly larvae at a Project STOP breeding facility in Muncar. They feed off organic waste collected from homes and
Black soldier fly larvae at a Project STOP breeding facility in Muncar. They feed off organic waste collected from homes and will eventually become food for local fish farms.

STOP has also set up a fly breeding factory, where millions of black soldier flies feed on the organic waste the group collects. The flies become cheap fish food for the town’s 60 small fish farms, and the money earned should make up for losses incurred in collecting the waste and paying for machinery to separate it.

“We are on track to collect 100 percent of the town’s waste by April 2020,” said Joi Danielson, a McKinsey-trained waste analyst from Portland, Oregon, working with Project STOP. “That should prevent more than 10,000 tons of plastic from leaking to the ocean over five years.”

STOP is investing over $2 million just to clean up Muncar. Despite that amount being more money than most Indonesian towns could match, it won’t block plastic flowing from upriver, unless other towns adopt similar waste-collection models.

Big Cities Are Overwhelmed Too

Cities present a similar set of challenges on a vast scale.

The amount of trash generated by a town the size of Muncar is puny when compared to Indonesia’s booming urban centers.

Cities have more money for waste collection, but they can barely keep up with the tidal wave of consumer goods, said Eri Cahyadi, head of planning and development in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city. Located just 135 miles northwest of Muncar, Surabaya is home to over 2.5 million people, generating over 1,600 tonnes of waste a day.

Workers sorting plastic to recycle at facility in Sidoarjo, an East Java city of 2.2 million.
Workers sorting plastic to recycle at facility in Sidoarjo, an East Java city of 2.2 million.

“We have a real problem,”  Cahyadi told HuffPost. “No one wants to separate their plastic and recyclables and everyone wants cheaper and cheaper goods. There is no culture of recycling.”

Surabaya has a rudimentary garbage collection system but there’s little separation of plastic from the general garbage, and much is still burned in the street or dumped into rivers. No one goes door to door winning hearts and minds in a place this size, the way the Warriors of Waste do in Muncar.

So officials in Surabaya are getting creative.

This is the only place in the world where people can pay for bus rides by presenting plastic bottles to the driver, said Cahyadi. The scheme collects 3 tons of plastic a day. The government is planning a similar program so parents can pay for school fees with bottles.

A woman brings used plastic bottles to exchange for bus tickets in Surabaya, East Java.
A woman brings used plastic bottles to exchange for bus tickets in Surabaya, East Java.

The city has also built river barriers to catch waste heading to the sea. Cahyadi said they’re stopping 220 tons of plastic a day, but he’s realistic about the larger factors preventing bigger wins.

“We have no power over the companies and we can’t stop plastic coming,” he said. “Only central government can do this.”

Like other big cities, Surabaya has set up small-scale neighborhood “waste banks” for people to drop off sorted plastic for recycling by local volunteers. The banks pay a small amount of money for recyclable plastic. Surabaya hopes to have 1,000 of these banks collecting 300 tons a month by 2020.

But many waste banks are barely used, said Eddy Sudarwanto, who volunteers weekly at one in the Gading Fajar area of town. His bank is faring better than most.

“We have 50 households registered, and more people come every month,” he noted. “When we started, we met a lot of resistance from local people. They said it was dirty and smelly. Now they are OK. The challenge is to get people to separate their waste. Not all communities are willing.”

Foreign Waste Gets Dumped

For every initiative that a city like Surabaya introduces to tackle plastic waste, more trash piles up elsewhere.

The World Bank expects the country’s waste to grow 76 percent in the next 10 years. And since China stopped importing much of the world’s scrap plastic for recycling, shipments of plastic to Indonesia have increased by nearly half.

Every day, containers with waste plastic and paper from the U.S. and Europe arrive in the city’s port, said Cahyadi. A HuffPost investigation earlier this year found that the same thing is happening across Southeast Asia, with damaging effects on local populations and ecosystems.

Vast amounts of the plastic trash shipped abroad is said to be too low-quality or contaminated for recycling, meaning it likely gets sent to landfills, or is burned or dumped illegally. U.S. and European companies may also be exporting trash that they know to be unusable, simply because it’s easy and cheap to do so, alleges Prigi Arisandi, an Indonesian biologist whose work fighting industrial pollution in rivers earned him the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, known as a “green Oscar.” These companies, he says, stash items like diapers and shoes into bales of paper, to hide them from customs agents. 

“We are finding plastic from the U.S.A. and Canada, the U.K. and Ireland, and Australia and New Zealand,” Arisandi said.

“The paper industry then sells the scrap plastic to communities who dump it in landfills or straight into the River Brantas.” This river, one of the most polluted in the world, is a water source for 6 million East Java residents, he added, noting that 80 percent of the fish he and his team have tested from the Brantas River had tiny particles of plastic inside them.

Landfills Are Overflowing

The 2015 Science journal report estimated that nearly half the 3.2 million tons of plastic Indonesia produces every year ends up in the ocean. Of the rest, around 70% goes to massive, unsanitary landfill sites, and just 2-7% is recycled. But the country is approaching a tipping point: Major dumps are too full.  

“All the big cities like Jakarta, Bandung, Denpassar, Medan and Semarang are running out of landfill space,” said plastic recycler and ecologist Bhima Diyanto. “They cannot expand because of opposition from neighbors, and so the plastic waste is being burned or going straight into rivers.”

At 92 acres in size, Surabaya’s main landfill site is one of the best managed in Indonesia, but it is close to capacity.

Waste pickers sift through a mountain of garbage at a landfill site near Sidoarjo.
Waste pickers sift through a mountain of garbage at a landfill site near Sidoarjo.

Surabaya wants to be plastic-free by 2030, by which time it hopes to generate 10 MW of electricity a year burning plastic and other waste from a new incinerator and from collecting gas from its landfill site. That way, say the authorities, it will help solve both the landfill and plastic problems.  

For now, the country relies on individuals to comb through garbage at fast-growing dumps and pull out the reusable items. Nearly 2 million people in Indonesia now live by collecting plastic and metals, according to the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers. These jobs are dirty, dangerous and low-paying, and an untold number of people do the work in an unofficial capacity, meaning authorities don’t have a clear picture of how much they collect or whether they dispose of it properly.

Eighty waste-pickers live and work on the giant Benowo dump, located between shrimp farms and rice fields outside Sidoarjo, an industrial city of 2.2 million people 20 miles from Surabaya. In just 13 years, Sidoarjo’s waste mountain has grown to over 100 acres and now needs to expand again.

Karisun, a 55-year-old waste picker, tells HuffPost that he collects over 20 pounds of plastic per day, for which he earns about $2.80.

There’s more plastic debris at the Benowo dump than ever, but because companies are making items like water bottles thinner in an effort to reduce waste, Karisun receives less cash than he used to. 

“I am proud that the plastic I collect is recycled,” Karisun said. “But we must collect more to make any money.”

Local Companies Try To Compete With Foreign Giants

Diyanto, who is also a director of a waste company, has a bold plan to build a network of small recycling facilities in areas where none exist. So far, he has teamed up with an Indonesian investor to build five neighborhood sorting centers in Sidoarjo that can process even the most contaminated plastic and allow it to be recycled. He is now the biggest plastic waste handler in the city, employing over 200 people, including former waste pickers from the dumps.

“We can go to any town or village and recycle all the plastic,” Diyanto claims. “It can all be recycled except diapers, which must go to the incinerator. Our vision is for every community to have a recycling center and to sort its own waste.” 

But Diyanto and local companies face stiff competition. Twenty-five of the biggest oil, plastics and chemical companies, including Dow, Shell, and Chevron, have committed  $1.5 billion over the next five years to stop plastic getting into the sea, starting with Indonesia and other Asian countries.

Bhima Diyanto, an ecologist and director of a waste management company, poses at a mechanical sorting center where neighborho
Bhima Diyanto, an ecologist and director of a waste management company, poses at a mechanical sorting center where neighborhood trash can be recycled. 

The Asian Development Bank and World Bank have each pledged over $100 million for Indonesia waste management, and Chinese, Finnish and British companies are arriving.

In addition, the environmental nonprofit Ocean Conservancy has attracted money from the U.S. government and is working with the Indonesian government. Investment company Circulate Capital has raised about $90 million to combat ocean plastic, attracting corporations like Dell, Ikea, Danone, Veolia, HP, Pepsico, and Procter and Gamble. Meanwhile, Ikea and HP hope to divert at least 25,000 tons of plastic from the ocean waters around Indonesia by 2025.

Meanwhile 250 of the world’s largest food, drink and packaging companies, including Danone, H&M, Coca Cola, Carrefour, Nestle and Unilever, have signed up to the United Nations-backed New Plastics Economy initiative, which intends to increase the recycled content of their goods to an average of 25% by 2025, up from the current 2%.

“Everyone now wants Indonesian plastic,” Diyanto observed. “We are in the plastic wars. People compete with each other for our plastic.”

But, he noted, foreign investments don’t always trickle down to people like him, who actually work with the trash. “There is big money in waste. There is theoretically money available for better management, but where is it?”

Many foreign initiatives have been small-scale, and others have been dismissed by Greenpeace and other environmental groups as “greenwashing.”

“The problem is that leading brands are producing more plastic waste than recycling systems can cope with,” said Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace. “Global plastic production is set to quadruple by 2050. We need consumer brands to reduce the amount of plastic they put in circulation.” 

Diyanto, for one, is not waiting around for what he calls the “plastic colonialists” to solve Indonesia’s trash problems. Instead, he’s putting his faith in local people to get the work done.

“Indonesians can solve [their] waste crisis,” he insists. “Its seas and beaches can be clean.”

This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.

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