Every year, pounding rains wash away mountains of plastic waste from the streets of Jakarta, with some of it ending up as far away as Bali’s beaches, so scientists are turning to satellites to trace the rubbish and figure out how to tackle the problem.
Indonesia allows more waste to enter the ocean than any other country, apart from China.
The archipelago of nearly 270 million people dumps a whopping 620,000 tonnes of plastic into its waterways annually, a figure that the government said it wants to cut by two-thirds over the next five years.
Scientists hope that following the waste’s movement would help them understand the full extent of the problem and decide how best to collect it based on seasonal, wind and water current patterns.
The World Bank-backed project is a collaboration between a team from the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and CLS Argos, a subsidiary of France’s space agency.
The project is an indication of the issue’s global importance — today, an estimated 150 million tonnes of plastic are circulating in the world’s oceans, with more being dumped every minute, the US-based Ocean Conservancy said.
Since February, the team has deployed satellite beacons at the mouths of rivers around Jakarta, Bandung in Central Java and Palembang on the island of Sumatra.
“Today, we’re launching GPS beacons to learn how the plastic debris gets into the sea,” said CLS Argos technician Ery Ragaputra, as he tossed a yellow device wrapped in a waterproof cover into the Cisadane River, which empties into the Java Sea near Jakarta.
“These trackers will follow where the trash gathers and where it lands,” he added.
Data collected by the beacons, which have a one-year battery life, are transmitted hourly to a satellite that pings the information to CLS Argos headquarters in France, and then back to screens at the maritime affairs ministry.
Initial figures are promising, researchers said.
“Ninety percent of the beacons we have released are beaching after a few hours or a few days, which is relatively good news, as it makes it easier for the Indonesian authorities to collect [the rubbish],” said Jean-Baptiste Voisin, director of CLS Argos’ local subsidiary.
“[But] some waste released six months ago is still drifting, so the debris is still in the ocean,” he added.
Among the beacons launched near Jakarta, some have traveled 1,100km east to Bali, while others from Indonesia’s second-biggest city, Surabaya, have floated all the way to fragile mangroves in westernmost Sumatra.
The goal is to release up to 70 beacons by the end of next year.
Cleaning up Indonesia’s waters is an immense challenge and these efforts might take years to bear fruit.
While the capital Jakarta has banned single-use plastics, public awareness remains low and waste recycling is only in its infancy.
The vast city’s rivers are a waste-choked eyesore.
Authorities hope that by identifying plastic drift and how it accumulates, they can collect it more efficiently — for example by deploying boats to key rubbish sites or equipping the locations with waste-collecting traps.
They think that it also means that they can better anticipate its effects on the environment.
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