Piles of plastic waste outside a village in Surabaya

Plastic's hidden journey to Indonesia

Friends of the Earth’s Emma Priestland recently travelled to Indonesia to research plastic pollution. She was horrified at what she found.
Emma Priestland
By Emma Priestland    |      Published:  21 Mar 2019    |      5 minute read

Surabaya on East Java is Indonesia's second city. It's heavily industrialised with factories lining the banks of the main Brantas River.

I've come here to meet Prigi Arisandi, a friend I've known for many years.

Prigi is an internationally recognised environmentalist who won a major prize (the Goldman) for his work cleaning up the Brantas River. So when he told me he had something to show me, I couldn't resist.

To start off, Prigi takes me to see the thriving waste paper recycling industry in the city. We stop to look at one of the city's 11 paper recycling mills, and watch lorries leaving the factories.

But there's a problem.

These lorries are carrying plastic, not paper.

What's going on? Prigi wants to show me the next location.

A dump of waste plastic on the outskirts of Surabaya
A dump of waste plastic on the outskirts of Surabaya
Credit: Emma Priestland/Friends of the Earth

We drive to the suburbs of Surabaya, a collection of small villages slowly being sucked into the urban sprawl. As we approach the centre of one of these villages, I’m hit by the stench of rubbish and choking black smoke.

In front of me is a 5 metre high dump of plastic waste.

Prigi starts to explain how he believes this plastic came to be here.

Mixing paper and plastic

In the UK, many people don't have separate bins for different recycling materials. So when you or I throw paper, plastic or glass into our combined recycling bins, it is taken to factories where huge machines sort it. Paper waste is collected together into huge bales which are loaded onto ships and sent around the world.

But there’s a problem. The sorting machines in the UK - and in many other places around the world - have difficulty distinguishing between flat pieces of paper and flat pieces of plastic.

So what do you think happens?

Plastic's journey to Indonesia

Indonesia has a law that says a proportion of paper for recycling plants needs to be imported, because it’s better quality. Paper is being sent to Indonesia from around the world.

That means my waste paper, and probably yours, could be found here in Surabaya.

And according to Prigi, when the Indonesian recycling factories find those rogue bits of plastic in their nice paper bales, they remove them.

Then they put them on a lorry, and dump them, here in the street.

Man picking through plastic waste in Surabaya
Man picking through plastic waste in Surabaya
Credit: Emma Priestland/Friends of the Earth

Everywhere I look there are families picking through the rubbish. Everything is a sickening grey colour, and the toxic fumes from burning plastic stick in my throat.

Prigi points to the ground, “Look here.”

I see a very familiar logo from the UK on the ground. It’s a milk label, the sort found wrapped around plastic bottles of supermarket milk. Perhaps the bottle itself got recycled back in the UK, but it's likely that the plastic label was mistakenly identified as paper by the sorting machines.

Prigi picks up the plastic and foil packaging from a clearly-recognisable brand of dog food.

“These villagers are looking for PET plastic bottles, because they can be recycled. They can sell them on,” he explains. “Every now and again someone finds a euro or dollar note – that can keep a family going for weeks.”

Prigi Arisandi holds up plastic waste found in Surabaya
Prigi Arisandi holds up plastic waste found in Surabaya
Credit: Emma Priestland/Friends of the Earth

I'm astounded by the sight of small children picking through plastic waste which could have come straight from my kitchen. The smell of burnt plastic lingers on my clothes and my throat is sore.

Fed up of plastic pollution? Please consider signing our petition.

Private deliveries

But Prigi has more to show me. The next day he takes me to visit a street where all of the households have paid a small amount to receive their own private dump of plastic waste from the paper mills.

Right outside their homes.

We watch from a discreet location as a truck pulls up outside someone’s home, opens its trailer and the waste falls out.

Again, it’s all familiar stuff with logos from around the world.

A household requests plastic waste to be dumped outside their home
A household requests plastic waste to be dumped outside their home
Credit: Emma Priestland/Friends of the Earth

A villager cautiously agrees to talk to us. “When it rains a lot of this rubbish just gets swept away into the local rivers," he says. "We put the ash from burning it behind our house but it often gets blown away onto our fields."

I ask him if he’s worried about the impacts on his health; “We need to make money,” he says with a shrug.

Highly toxic plastic ash dumped near crops in Surabaya
Highly toxic plastic ash dumped near crops in Surabaya
Credit: Emma Priestland/Friends of the Earth

The whole global north is using Indonesia as a dumping ground for waste which we don’t know what to do with. The consequences for the local people and the environment are awful.Emma Priestland

Just when I think it can’t get any worse, Prigi says he wants to take me to see a tofu factory.

Here he says, they’re using the same leftover plastic waste as fuel for heating water to prepare tofu.

We walk into what looks like a dark cavern to find a medieval scene of bare-chested men in shorts labouring over a furnace. There’s hardly any daylight, and it’s so hot they’re dripping in sweat.

But the furnace is not burning a medieval fuel like charcoal - it's plastic.

A man makes tofu using plastic waste as fuel
A man makes tofu using plastic waste as fuel
Credit: Emma Priestland/Friends of the Earth

I watch as a small man picks up a piece of muslin with fresh tofu inside; fumes from the burning plastic are rising directly into the area where the tofu is being prepared.

On the floor there are sticky patches of burnt plastic. No one is wearing a mask. The tofu is dumped into containers for local sale.

I can scarcely believe what I’m seeing.

A woman fries tofu using plastic waste as a fuel
A woman fries tofu using plastic waste as a fuel
Credit: Emma Priestland/Friends of the Earth

Our plastic waste is everywhere in these people’s lives. It’s outside their homes, in their rivers and water sources. The toxic fumes from burnt plastic is in their lungs, and now it seems that it’s even in the food they eat.

I can’t even begin to imagine what this is doing to local wildlife populations, soil and vegetation.

These people in Indonesia are being polluted in every way possible by our plastic waste.

A lot to take in

Now that I'm back in London, I'm still trying to process what I saw in Indonesia.

Before my trip I knew that a lot of our recycling is exported. But I never imagined that even paper waste, which we think is quite well organised, is contaminated with plastic.

Child on a plastic waste dump, Surabaya, Indonesia
Child on a plastic waste dump, Surabaya, Indonesia
Credit: Emma Priestland/Friends of the Earth

Ordinary householders in the UK are trying to do the right thing by recycling, but our systems do not seem to be preventing paper waste being contaminated with plastic.

We create so much low value plastic that we just don’t have any way to deal with it.

Most people would be horrified, as I was, to see what can happen to this waste.

We need a system of making sure this waste is better separated in our own homes for recycling. Importantly, we need plastic to not be used for single use things like labels.

Please consider signing our petition calling on businesses and government to do more to cut plastic waste.