A revealing report shows how in Indonesia low-quality plastics are burned for fuel, poisoning the surrounding soil and air.
A harrowing report has come out of Indonesia this week. Researchers from the Sweden-based International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN) have found that plastic waste shipped from Western countries is contaminating Indonesia's food supply.
What is happening is that local producers of tofu (a staple food) are burning plastic waste imports for fuel in their factories. The fumes are toxic, they poison the surrounding air and cause numerous health problems for local residents. Plastic ash also falls to the ground or is removed from kilns and spread by residents on the ground as a way to dispose of it. Free-range hens then peck at the ground for food and ingest the toxic ash, which contaminates their eggs.
The IPEN researchers knew that testing the eggs would reveal the presence of chemicals, but they did not expect the results to be so dire. BBC reports:
“The tests found that eating an egg would exceed the European Food Safety Authority's tolerable daily intake for chlorinated dioxins 70 times. The researchers said this was the second highest level of dioxins in eggs measured in Asia, behind only an area of Vietnam contaminated by the chemical weapon Agent Orange. The eggs also contained toxic flame retardant chemicals, SCCPs and PBDEs, used in plastics. "
(The Vietnam area mentioned has been contaminated for 50 years and recently began a decade-long cleanup funded by the United States to the tune of $ 390 million.)
As the New York Times explains, this horrible contamination begins with the well-intentioned act of Westerners throwing plastic into the recycling bin. They think it will turn into something useful, like running shoes or sweaters or toothbrushes, but that's unlikely. Instead, it is shipped overseas to places like Indonesia, which have filled the void since China closed its doors to plastic imports nearly two years ago.
Indonesia does not have good recycling facilities, nor the infrastructure to deal with the roughly 50 tonnes of low-quality plastic it receives on a daily basis, much of which is illegally exported to paper shipments by foreign exporters as a way to get rid of it. Once stuck with the unwanted plastic, Indonesia takes it to villages that use it for fuel.
The New York Times report has shocking photos of the plastic used in tofu factories (see here). For those of us in the West, the idea of burning large amounts of plastic is outrageous, but when it is one-tenth the cost of wood and there are mountains everywhere and there is no government regulation to speak of, Indonesian villagers feel they have no another option.
Those of us at the beginning of the plastic supply chain, however, must realize our complicity in this terrible problem. By continuing to buy plastic and 'recycle' it, we too are fueling the cycle. We must take partial responsibility for the poisoned eggs, the black fog during the day, the repeated hospitalizations of children who cannot breathe.
Indonesia Air Pollution Infographics
A total ban on Western plastic exports would help significantly, according to Oxford University Professor Peter Dobson. He told the BBC that he would "encourage the development of technologies to recycle or reuse plastic waste, or to discourage the widespread use of plastic."
We know that it is possible to curb our addiction to plastic. Just this week, Greenpeace published a report on what supermarkets would look like if they abandoned single-use plastics, and I have written numerous articles on how to reduce plastic at home. But it requires a major behavior change and a willingness on the part of individuals to do things differently. Stories like this one from Indonesia help because they make us realize that our purchasing decisions have far-reaching consequences.
Katherine Martinko. Article in English