Sat, Dec 22, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Indonesian business groups fighting to overturn efforts to stem plastic tide

Reuters, JAKARTA

As Indonesia struggles with mountains of plastic waste going into landfills and polluting its rivers and oceans, business groups are pushing to overturn restrictions on importing plastic scrap into Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, is estimated to be the second-largest contributor of plastic pollutants in the oceans after China, a 2015 study published in the journal Science said.

To tackle this, the government last year pledged up to US$1 billion a year to reduce marine plastic debris by 70 percent by 2025, but emerging divisions in the government on the issue of waste pose a fresh challenge to the targets.

SCRAP IMPORTS

Partly driving this rift is a push by the plastics industry to overturn a halt in scrap imports, which was introduced in June on concerns about a flood of waste from Western countries arriving after China barred such imports.

Indonesian Minister of Industry Airlangga Hartarto last month sent a letter urging the environment ministry to lift its bar on imports, because Indonesia does not produce enough suitable plastic waste to feed its recycling industry.

In the letter, reviewed by Reuters, Hartarto said that Indonesia needs 600,000 tonnes of imported scrap a year, much bigger than its usual 110,000 tonnes.

He said the country has about a US$40 million trade surplus, because it exports recycled plastics.

“This is a potential industry that creates a lot of jobs,” said Taufiek Bawazier, director of downstream chemical industry at the Indonesian Ministry of Industry, cautioning that focusing only on environmental risks could harm the industry.

OCEAN DEBRIS

The Science report said that almost half of the 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste Indonesia produces in a year ends up in the sea.

The issue was graphically highlighted last month when a sperm whale was found dead with 6kg of plastic waste in its stomach on an Indonesian beach.

However, the government’s waste reduction targets are complicated by a lack of recycling culture or awareness of environmental damage in the developing country of 260 million people.

Poor waste management means plastic trash that goes to landfills is too dirty to feed Indonesia’s recycling industry, Bawazier said, adding that business would take more than the annual 1.1 million tonnes of local scrap if it was available.

NO PLASTIC HATE

Plastics lobby groups say downstream to upstream plastic industries employ 130,000 people directly, while millions make a livelihood by scavenging for waste, such as plastic bottles, for a small bit of cash.

“We must not hate plastic,” said Christine Halim, chairwoman of Indonesia’s recycling association, noting that buying foreign scrap is much cheaper than making products with virgin plastic and, as long as the environment is protected, should be seen as a business opportunity.

There were no plans to reopen scrap imports, said Deputy Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs Safri Burhanuddin, who overseas the environment ministry.

Nonetheless, the industry ministry argues there is no legal basis to stop imports, while the plastic industry has successfully lobbied policymakers before.

A 2016 plan to slap excise on all plastic packaging was watered down to only apply to plastic bags and even this has not been implemented yet.

The industry is also fighting a ban on plastic bags in supermarkets by some city governments. The Indonesian Olefin, Aromatic and Plastic Industry Association was cited in the media as saying that the move had led to an oversupply of bags.

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