plastic addiction

Indonesia's Obsession with Plastic Is Getting Out of Hand

Life in plastic is not that fantastic for the environment.

Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja

Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja

Collage by Dicho Firman

Indonesians love coffee. But they may love plastic even more. A lot of small coffee shops in Jakarta right now are the kind that only take takeaway orders, meaning they use and discard an insane amount of plastic with every order, all day, every day. Here's what it looks like when I order my coffee in the morning: my low-sugar iced coffee is served in a bubble tea plastic cup, one that's sealed with plastic wrap on the top, along with a plastic straw, which is also wrapped in plastic. Then the barista puts everything in a plastic bag so I can carry it to work.

It's the kind of plastic use that Starbucks has vowed to reduce. The coffee giant, which has 326 locations in Indonesia, announced earlier this week that it will phase out the use of plastic straws to zero by 2020 (and replace them with lids made of plastic). But judging from our national love of plastic, I have a feeling that it's a change that Indonesians will find hard to accept.

"We use plastic as part of the service and politeness," said Andi, a barista at coffee shop near VICE's Indonesia office. "But we ask our customers first whether or not they want a plastic bag."

Indonesia's obsession with plastic is evident beyond their coffee consumption. Go to your local mini market, buy a small item, and you'll be given a plastic bag five times its size. While some countries charge shoppers who opt for plastic bags, Indonesian shopkeepers are often shocked when you tell them you'll just carry your groceries with your hands. In this country, plastic bags are like an unwritten rule between shopkeepers and their customers.

I spoke with Kasnanto, who has worked as a cashier at a supermarket for years. He told me that he would feel bad if he didn't give his customers plastic bags, and he often don't have the heart to put things like cat food and human food in one bag. "I feel it’s impolite if we don’t put the stuff they purchase inside plastic bags," Kasnanto said. "The customer is king, so I have to serve them well. I also use plastic bags because I don’t want people to think my customers just stole something."

In a 2018 study called “Plastic Waste Associated with Disease on Coral Reefs,” researchers found that there are more plastic in Indonesia's coral reefs than any other coral reef in the world. This shouldn't be all that surprising when you consider that Indonesia uses 3.22 million metric tons of plastic every year, making it the world's second-biggest plastic waste producer after China.

Researchers and the media have put Indonesia's plastic problem in the spotlight, but so far, the government has refused to take full responsibility of all this waste.

"So far, we're still inspecting the origins of this plastic waste, because Indonesia is a crossroad of Asia and Australia," Djati Witjaksono Hadi, the head of public relations at the environment and forestry ministry, told BBC Indonesia in January. "So it's still unclear if all this waste garbage came from South Asia or from anywhere else."

Yusar Muljadji, a sociologist at Padjadjaran University, told me that the excessive plastic culture in Indonesia is attributed to how seriously we take the "customer is king" principle. Here, customers feel that wrapping things up is a sign of a good service or proof that we're getting our money's worth. And that's why wrapping things in plastic is considered normal and necessary. "If it's not wrapped, it's not acceptable," he said.

But maybe wrapping things up itself isn't the problem—it's that the material we use that ends up in the country's rivers and oceans. According to a global survey by the Ocean Conservancy, plastic grocery bags are the fifth most-common item found in beach clean-up efforts. Yusar told me that back in the day, Indonesians used to use leaves and pieces of cloth to wrap up their goods, but since we've gone plastic, we've never looked back. It's a dangerous side-effect of industrialization, he told me. Plastic is cheap, easy, and convenient but its overuse is dangerous and expensive.

So next time you're at the mini-market, remember, you can still be a king, even without the plastic.

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