Giant plastic ‘berg blocks Indonesian river

A crisis of plastic waste in Indonesia has become so acute that the army has been called in to help.

Rivers and canals are clogged with dense masses of bottles, bags and other plastic packaging.

Officials say they are engaged in a “battle” against waste that accumulates as quickly as they clear it.

The commander of a military unit in the city of Bandung described it as “our biggest enemy”.

Like many rapidly developing countries, Indonesia has become notorious for struggling to cope with mountains of rubbish.

A population boom has combined with an explosive spread of plastic containers and wrapping replacing natural biodegradable packaging such as banana leaves.

The result is that local authorities trying to provide rubbish collection have been unable to keep up with the dramatic expansion of waste generated.

And a longstanding culture of throwing rubbish into ditches and streams has meant that any attempt to clean up needs a massive shift in public opinion.

‘Shocking sight’

In Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest city, we witnessed the shocking sight of a concentration of plastic waste so thick that it looked like an iceberg and blocked a major tributary.

Soldiers deployed on a barge used nets to try to extract bags, Styrofoam food boxes and bottles, a seemingly futile task because all the time more plastic flowed their way from further upstream.

The senior official in charge, Dr Anang Sudarna, who heads the West Java Environmental Protection Agency, told me that the problem was “impossible to sort out without the highest authority”.

That’s why he took the drastic step of appealing to the Indonesian president to send in the army, and the move has made some difference, according to Dr Sudarna.

“The result is a little bit improved…but I am angry, I am sad, I am trying to think how best to solve this… the most difficult thing is the people’s attitude and the political will.”

Frontal assault

For Sergeant Sugito, commanding an army unit, the assignment was new and unusual and “not as easy as flipping your hand”.

“My current enemy is not a combat enemy, what I am fighting very hard now is rubbish, it is our biggest enemy.”

But he also said that plastic should be recognised as valuable – “for example, plastic cartons and drinking bottles can be separated from the other rubbish and sold”, he said.

Encouraging people to see plastic as a resource is a key step towards finding a solution to the crisis.

To encourage recycling, the authorities in the Bandung area are supporting initiatives in “eco-villages” where residents can bring old plastic items and earn small amounts of money in exchange.

The plastics are then divided by type. In one project we visited, two women patiently cut apart bottles and small water cups because separating the different kinds of polymers earns higher prices.

Officials are optimistic that word will spread that plastic has value – and raise awareness of the plastic waste problem – but they also admit privately that many residents are either uninterested or cannot see the point.

Meanwhile, on Bandung’s only landfill site – which receives only a fraction of the waste the city produces – an unofficial form of recycling is under way.

Next generation

On a hillside buried in rubbish, amid an overwhelming stench in the tropical heat, 500 so-called “scavengers” search each new load of rubbish for plastic products.

When I asked one man, scrambling from the path of an excavator, what he was looking for, he reached into a bag and held up a plastic bottle.

The work is punishing but generates income which supports entire families living on the dump, and it also demonstrates that there is a market for recycled plastic and more could be done to serve it.

For one activist working to change attitudes, Mohamad Bijaksana Junerosano of Greeneration, the solution has to involve law enforcement, education and social awareness.

Investment was needed to teach children about waste and recycling, he said, but that had to be done in combination with improvements in public attitudes.

“If we educate the student, when they go outside the school and the ecosystem is still broken and people are littering everywhere, they are confused so it needs both sides, education and also law enforcement by society.”

Monumental scale

A Dutch environmental scientist, Prof Ad Ragas of Radboud University, with long experience of Indonesia’s plastic problem, told me he has detected an important shift in the authorities.

Two years ago, when he organised a workshop on plastic pollution in Bandung, “government officials didn’t seem to care about it, they didn’t see it as a really big problem”.

By contrast, at another workshop held last month, “it’s changed dramatically”.

Social media, rapidly conveying images of choked waterways, had made a difference to people, he said.

“They immediately see that ‘this is what my river look likes now and I’m doing that because I’m throwing all this plastic away’ so they get feedback much quicker than they used to.”

But the challenge is not only monumental in scale; it is also constant.

The soldiers we filmed had planned to load the plastic onto trucks but because the vehicles never arrived they decided on a different course of action: to use a digger to push the waste downstream.

I asked the sergeant what would happen to it. It was up to another unit to collect, he said. It became someone else’s problem.

Near the coast, just outside the capital Jakarta, we came across a canal that was totally blocked with plastic. Local residents complained that whenever they tried to clear it, more arrived from upstream, as in Bandung.

Most apocalyptic of all was the scene at a fishing village on the coast itself. The mud of the shoreline was completely hidden by a thick layer of plastic waste stretching over hundreds of metres.

On a walkway crossing over the sea of plastic was a small girl playing with a balloon. By the time Indonesia’s plastic nightmare is sorted, she may well have grown up.

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Plastic recycling: Why are 99.75% of coffee cups not recycled?

It’s gradually becoming common knowledge that it’s not as easy to recycle your takeaway coffee cup as people may have thought.

It’s the mixture of paper and plastic in their inner lining – designed to make them both heat and leakproof – that causes difficulties.

There are currently only a small number of specialist plants in the UK able to process the disposable used cups, and as a result, the vast majority of them (more than 99.75%) don’t get recycled.

In 2011 it was estimated that 2.5 billion coffee cups were thrown away each year and that figure is likely to be higher now.

Some of the biggest sellers of coffee in the UK, including Costa and Starbucks, say they have started recycling coffee cups, but that’s only if customers dispose of their takeaway cups in store.

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    Ace UK, the representative body for beverage carton manufacturers, has 415 recycling points for coffee cups and other paper products across the UK. Cups deposited here will be taken to the company’s own specialist recycling plant.

    They are generally in places like car parks rather than on the street.

    Cups that are left on the kerb in household recycling or in a bin on a high street or railway station, however, will generally end up in landfill.

    Industry body the Paper Cup Alliance says the specialist plants that do have the technology already have the capacity to recycle all the cups we throw away – it’s the infrastructure to transport them there that’s currently lacking.

    A growing number of retailers and offices are buying compostable cups and one of the biggest providers in the UK is Vegware, which makes its products without any plastic so they biodegrade.

    It sells compostable cups to office canteens, schools, hospitals and independent coffee shops and its sales have increased by more than a third in the last two years.

    However, compostable cups have to be disposed of in food waste bins rather than in a normal recycling bin and this is an issue for both homeowners and managers of cafes or workplace canteens.

    Trewin Restorick, at environmental charity Hubbub, believes the right disposable method is not always clear to people and says: “Compostable sounds better, but it can actually make things worse if they are put in the wrong bin.”

    Because they are designed to break down, if they end up in with the plastic recycling they can contaminate it. The same is true if you put an ordinary takeaway coffee cup in the recycling.

    This costs councils money in sorting it and can even lead to the whole batch of recycled items being rejected.

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      Vegware says its products work best in an environment where the waste can be controlled, like a festival. In those kinds of environments people are likely to buy a drink onsite and throw it away onsite.

      The amount of waste that gets rejected for recycling by councils in England has been rising. That waste then ends up in landfills or being burnt.

      The proportion of recycling that gets rejected is still relatively small, though – less than 5%.

      If compostable cups end up in landfill, unlike plastics they will break down. But this misses the opportunity to harness the energy produced through composting for another use – as fertiliser or even to generate electricity.

      Reusable cups

      The three biggest coffee retailers in the UK – Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero – all provide incentives for customers to bring in their own reusable mug rather than using a disposable cup.

      Costa and Starbucks offer a 25p discount while Caffe Nero offers double stamps on its loyalty card, which it says is equal in value to 25p.

      Greggs and Pret a Manger – the biggest “food-focused” sellers of coffee according to retail consultancy Allegra Strategies – also have discount schemes. Pret is the most generous with a 50p discount for shunning single-use cups.

      Starbucks has offered a discount for customers in the UK using their own mugs since it opened in 1998, and says about 1.8% of all hot drinks sold are in reusable cups.

      The coffee shop chain is trialling a 5p “latte levy” charge on paper cups in 35 branches in London – a plan proposed on a national level by MPs and rejected by the government in March.

      The trial has been in operation for six weeks so it’s too soon to judge its success, but early indications are that it has increased sales of drinks in reusable cups compared with a discount alone.

      Costa Coffee says about 1% of hot drinks it sells are in reusable mugs and that has been consistent since the discount was introduced.

      The company doesn’t have data on reusable cup use from before the incentive scheme was introduced, so it’s difficult to say whether the discount itself is encouraging some people to use non-disposable cups.

      Caffe Nero don’t have figures on how many drinks are sold in reusable cups because they give extra loyalty card stamps as an incentive rather than discounting the drink itself.

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