By Douglas Broderick
Millions of Indonesians depend on oceans to feed their families. Fishermen, ferryboat drivers, tour guides and freight workers. When the ocean suffers, so do lives. But 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are swirling around in the world’s seas. Five giant “patches” of garbage are floating in the world’s oceans. They are nearly equivalent to the entire land mass of Indonesia. They’re growing. Patches have collected so much trash — mostly plastic — they can be seen from space.
Plastic production has risen steadily for fifty years. Out of 299 million tons of plastic produced in 2013 globally, 50 percent was for single-use packaging. When we order food to our homes, or ask for food and drink to “take away”, we are creating waste for personal convenience. There is a one in five chance it will end up in the ocean. Maritime debris experts point out Indonesia has become the world’s second-biggest marine pollutant, tossing approximately 1.3 million tons annually into waters. If we don’t act now, there could be more plastic particles than fish in the oceans by 2050. Up to 135,000 whales globally are entangled in marine plastic each year. Countless fish, seals, birds and turtles are ingesting marine waste, and choking to death. Fishermen have reported animal carcasses washing up, entangled in plastic bags.Plastic is killing migratory animals and endangered species. Marine plastic is poisoning one of Indonesia’s most nutritious food: fish. Microplastics are particles smaller than 1mm coming from clothing and cosmetics. They are ingested by fish and shellfish species including mussels, clams, oysters particularly in shallow water or coastal areas. Microplastic-poisoned fish are eaten by people. We need to know more about this impact on human health. The impact of marine waste on tourism is worrying. For example, Wakatobi is known for having the highest number of reefs and fish species in the world and is a protected marine national park. International companies are developing five-star hotels. The local government will allocate Rp20 billion (US$1.5 million) from its 2017 regional budget for the development and promotion of tourism — with the goal of increasing visitors to 40,000 this year. Global research has shown that coral reefs littered with marine plastic are not only unattractive for divers, but physically damaged. This is seen in shallow tropical reefs. Marine litter impacts Indonesia’s tourism. It discourages tourists from visiting beaches, or taking dives, two of the sector’s greatest assets. The fate of most plastic debris, like water bottles, is the ocean floor — which means it’s out of sight and unable to be detected until consequences to marine life and economy become clear. We cannot afford to wait for more research to be conducted before the mess is cleaned up. Everyone must curb their personal consumption of plastic. Industries should find solutions to manage and recycle waste, including managing factory waste responsibly and recycling waste through small enterprises. Indonesia has great potential to stop the flow of trash into seawaters. There have been many initiatives already. For example, waste4change, a social enterprise consulting and campaigning on responsible waste collection. Or Garbage Clinical Insurance, a startup targeting the country’s poorest people by exchanging rubbish collection for health insurance. These initiatives, which create jobs, must continue and be supported. The widescale shift in the way we personally consume and manage plastic must change. Indonesia has committed to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 14 by 2030. Goal 14, “protect life below water”, is an ambitious task that requires the cooperation of business, government, and you. Together with the government of Indonesia, UNESCO is working on marine biosphere reserves including Wakatobi and Taka Bonerate-Kepulauan Selayar to protect coral reefs and mangrove ecosystems. UNDP is working to reduce harmful chemicals from waste through the manufacturing of plastics. UNEP is engaged in ocean clean-up activities and public campaigning. The Government has prioritized the marine waste crisis by participating in discussions at global events on ocean preservation. A national action plan will be presented and used at the World’s Ocean Summit in Bali Feb. 22-24. The most effective way to end the marine plastic crisis is individual action. Saying no to plastic is powerful. Reuse bags and containers. Bring your own bags to supermarkets. Educate children about recycling. Cleaning up Indonesia’s oceans will help achieve the goals, save lives, and bring prosperity to the nation. The world needs an ocean filled with fish, not plastic.
Douglas Broderick is the United Nations in Indonesia Resident Coordinator
This opinion piece was originally published in The Jakarta Post, 22 February 2017