Is Australia to Blame for Indonesia’s Plastic Waste Problem?

Indonesian activists are saying that trash imported from Australia is clogging Java's second-biggest river.
April 25, 2019, 11:17am
Australia Dituding Mengekspor Sampah Plastik ke Aliran Sungai Jawa Timur
Aliran sungai di Bekasi tertutup timbunan sampah. Foto oleh Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

For years, Indonesia has been getting a bad rep for being the world's second-largest producer just behind China. But Indonesians may not be the ones to blame for all the trash in the country after all. Its neighbour down under, according to a new study, is partly responsible.

For the study, an environmental NGO called Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (Ecoton) examined the toxicity levels from 22 paper factories located along the Brantas river in East Java, the second-biggest river in Java. Due to a shortage of raw materials, many of these factories began importing recycled paper.


Australia is one of the largest exporters of used paper to Indonesia. According to Ecoton’s findings, the country exported 52 thousand tons of waste to Indonesia in 2018 alone. Now, environmental activists suspect that Australia also purposefully slipped in thousands of tons of plastic waste in between stacks of paper it sends over.

In their investigation, Ecoton found various types of household plastic waste, including diapers, plastic bags, plastic wrap, and plastic bottles, in the paper containers at one factory in East Java. Some of the waste products even bear the label "Made in Australia."

The plastic waste is then sold to locals to be sorted and processed. The problem is, because most of the plastic waste is not recyclable, the locals either burn it or let it pile up on the riverside, Ecoton said.

Watch: China's Waste Ban Is Causing A Trash Crisis In The U.S. (HBO)

Ecoton's executive director Prigi Arisandi, said Australia has difficulty processing its own waste, following China's waste ban that took affect starting April 2018. Until then, China had been the number one importer of Australian waste. Instead of finding a solution to their waste woes, it seems Australian authorities instead chose to continue exporting its waste, this time to Indonesia.

“They don’t want trash to affect their environment, so they put that risk on poor or developing countries that don’t have strict regulations,” Prigi told ABC in an interview.


Brantas river is the second-longest river in Java, stretching 320 kilometres. Its role is vital to those who live along it. It supplies 97 percent of the water needs of Surabaya, East Java's capital and Indonesia's second-biggest city after Jakarta. But Brantas is getting more and more polluted every day.

Last year, ABC reported that Australia sent 1.2 million tons of waste, or about 30 percent of its total waste, to China in between 2016 and 2017. The rest was either exported elsewhere, or left to end up in the ocean.

Prigi said that the Indonesian government is not strict enough in enforcing the regulations of waste imports. According to Indonesia's regulations, the weight of plastic waste shouldn't be more than two percent of the weight of used paper. But Prigi's team found that the plastic waste entering Indonesia could weigh as much as 30 percent of the used paper it came with.

Ecoton has held a protest to urge Australia to get their trash out of Indonesia. They’ve also sent a letter of complaint to the Australian Consulate-General in Surabaya earlier this week, but the neither the Australian government not its embassy in Jakarta has made an official response.

According to data from Indonesia's Central Statistics Agency (BPS), in 2018, Indonesia imported 283,152 metric tons of plastic waste—a 141 percent increase from 2013.

Last November, Indonesia’ Ministry of Industry asked the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to give permission to plastic raw material imports. The Ministry of Industry said that Indonesia is still lacking industrial plastic raw materials.

Indonesia's Ministry of Industry claimed last November that Indonesia still lacks industrial-grade raw plastic materials—the country needs 5.6 million tons of plastic every year, but it lacks nearly 2 million of them, which is why Indonesia imports from countries like Australia. It's quite strange, since Indonesia can easily produce 3.2 million of tons of plastic waste each year. Instead of importing, Indonesia should be able to build more recycling facilities nationwide, so it could meet its own needs for raw materials.

So are the two countries both to blame for the pollution in Brantas river? I guess you could say so.

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.