This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
While people are quick to cite plastic straws and single-use packaging as the most environmentally destructive forms of waste, few are aware of one of the most significant threats to our rivers and seas: used diapers.
In Indonesia, diapers have inundated the Brantas river, the nation’s second-longest river. Many blame the widespread belief known locally as “suleten” for the crisis.
Suleten is the local lore that anything a baby uses is connected to its soul, including diapers. According to this belief, burning or discarding used diapers in the garbage will harm the baby’s soul. The more desirable practise is to dispose of diapers in rivers or to bury them, which locals believe will keep babies cool and comfortable.
Many residents of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, still subscribe to the idea of suleten. Surabayans are reluctant about allowing their babies’ used diapers to end up in landfills (where they will possibly get burnt), out of fear for their babies’ wellbeing.
Prigi Arisandi, executive director of the Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (ECOTON), an NGO that has launched an investigation on the Surabaya diaper crisis, confirmed that suleten is at least partially to blame.
“The myth remains strong in Java. Especially in the areas I handle, like East and Central Java,” Arisandi told VICE.
According to a World Bank report, diapers constitute 21 percent of the waste polluting Indonesia’s seas. This makes it the second most common form of waste found in the ocean after organic waste at 44 percent. It is followed by plastic bags at 16 percent.
Although suleten is an old wives’ tale, it appears the myth still holds some truth among Indonesia’s youth. Lina, a 21-year-old mother of an infant from Surabaya who goes by one name, was always taught to bury her baby’s diapers near a river.
She said she doesn’t really believe in suleten, but her parents insisted she follow it.
“I don’t lose anything by doing it. If my parents ask me to do it, they must have good intentions,” Lina said.
The pattern of diaper disposal is relatively consistent, Riska Darmawanti, senior researcher at ECOTON said. Most adherents of suleten hurl them into a river from a bridge.
“We surveyed some bridges and found that the most popular bridge for diaper disposal was on the Brantas river. In the morning, couples drive up to the bridge on their motorcycle and toss the dirty diapers in the river,” she told VICE.
The diaper crisis in Surabaya’s rivers led to the formation of the Diaper Evacuation Brigade, a group that “evacuated” diapers and educated the public on the crisis.
“At one bridge, we evacuated 300 kilograms of diapers in two hours,” Darmawati said.
But that amount is just the tip of the iceberg of this crisis. Diapers consists of 50 percent plastic and 42 percent Super Absorbent Polymers (SAP). When discarded improperly, used diapers pose a significant threat to water quality.
Arisandi said the SAPs turn into a gel-like substance when they come into contact with water, releasing compounds that can cause hormonal changes in fish. This causes fish to become intersex and face reproductive issues.
A 2013 Brawijaya University and University of Le Havre study found that 20 percent of fish in the Brantas River were intersex. Researchers concluded that if the pollution is not mitigated, the river may lose several species of fish.
Eko Prasetyo, an environmental expert at Airlangga University, said that improper diaper disposal does not necessarily correlate with fish becoming intersex, but it certainly does need to be addressed.
“It causes the water to recede and it makes the river smell and look bad,” Prasetyo told VICE. He added that millions of people living along the river depend on Brantas for their daily water needs.
Collaborative efforts between locals and the government have not been effective enough to make a real change. At the beginning of her term as governor of East Java in February, Khofifah Indar Parawansa set up diaper disposal stations and CCTVs along the Brantas River, charging a Rp500,000 ($35.71) fine to those who throw used diapers in the river — which for many locals can amount to a week’s pay.
Arisandi said the governor’s initiative was merely a ceremonial gesture and cannot be considered a serious step in the right direction. Parawansa responded by saying she had signed a memorandum of understanding with 23 diaper companies regarding the crisis, but did not name them.