A Review of the Impacts, Causes, and Mitigation Efforts Towards Plastic Waste in Indonesian Coastal Environments

This Report was written by Nikita Cronyn from La Trobe University who joined us on our Indonesia trip in April 2018 looking at the impacts of plastic waste. This report is based on her findings from that trip.

Indonesia is the second largest contributor to plastic pollution in the world, contributing an estimated 200,000 tons of plastic waste into the ocean and its connecting rivers (Lebreton et al., 2017). But where does the true cause of this pollution lie? Around 9.5 million tourists come to visit this popular destination each year, which suggests that their impact alone has the potential to be the major contributor to this pollution (Law, Lacy, Lipman, & Jiang, 2016). With plastic being inexpensive and durable, it is a commonly used material (Willoughby, Sangkoyo, & Lakaserus, 1997). However, the ‘durable’ nature of plastic continues after we dispose of it, as it is extremely difficult to degrade through natural processes (Barrows, Cathey, & Petersen, 2018). The degrading process, even after thousands of years, leaves tiny microplastic particles that can be unseen to the human eye, but dramatic in its impact (Barrows, Cathey, & Petersen, 2018). This research essay aims to discuss these impacts of plastic waste – specifically towards the highly populated Indonesian Archipelago. Furthermore, a comparison between Indonesian tourists and locals and their estimated contributions towards pollution will be considered, with the intention of investigating the chief cause of this issue. Finally, Indonesian mitigation efforts towards plastic waste will be reviewed with the consideration of what additional mitigation strategies could be put into place to further reduce the negative impacts of plastic waste and Indonesia’s contribution towards it.

Plastic pollution has a multitude of sources and origins (Willoughby, Sangkoyo, & Lakaserus, 1997). Packaging; bags; cigarette butts; food wrappers; foam cups and clothing fibres are just some of the many different items that not only contain plastic fragments, but are items that are repetitively found washed up on Indonesian beaches (Willoughby, Sangkoyo, & Lakaserus, 1997). The negative impacts of these polluted items are apparent and well-documented. Macroplastics, which are large, visible pieces of plastic debris, have been identified as an ingestion threat to marine life and marine birds in many studies (Avery-Gomm, Provencher, Morgan, & Bertram, 2013; Blight & Burger, 1997; Ryan, 1987). 

Furthermore, macroplastics have been documented to be present in every major ocean basin, which highlights the global extent of these threats (Waller et al., 2017). However, what appears to be less documented is the aftermath of this pollution; its breakdown into microplastic fragments. Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic debris that can even be too small to see with the human eye (Waller et al., 2017). New alarming studies such as one from Barrows, Cathey and Peterson (2018) show that microplastics are in fact also found in every major ocean basin across the world, where they found a global microparticle average of 11.8 ± 24.0 particles per litre of water. This is a serious cause of concern for particle ingestion in not only marine life, but for humans as well through trophic cascade effects (Avery-Gomm, Provencher, Morgan, & Bertram, 2013). Additionally, harmful chemicals leach out of plastics, which has the potential to poison food and water resources (Gupta, 2018). The magnitude of these impacts raises questions as to where all this pollution is coming from. With Indonesia being identified as the second largest producer of marine plastic waste after China, an area of interest of this investigation was the cause of this coastal pollution; particularly due to the location being a common tourist destination (Lebreton et al., 2017). The area is experiencing a steady increase in its coastal litter levels – but tourist activity is also on the rise (Willoughby, Sangkoyo, & Lakaserus, 1997). In fact, the amount of pollution and its composition have both dramatically changed since tourism (Willoughby, Sangkoyo, & Lakaserus, 1997). These findings sparked an investigation of tourism impacts on Indonesian coastal pollution, which was completed through an in-person assessment of both tourist-based and isolated communities in the Bali region and surrounding islands. 

In order to get a grasp of the plastic waste in Indonesia, a frequency count of littered plastic was conducted at a popular beach in Bali (Sanur Beach, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, -8.6840°, 115.2645°) that was raked and cleaned each day for the tourists. Due to time constraints, the survey time was limited to approximately one hour. However, the plastic waste on this beach was so severe that within this time, I was able to identify 260 pieces of rubbish within 20m (length of transect is approximate). After the one-hour survey time, there was still a significant number of plastic pieces that had still not been picked up within that transect. A marine tracker app was used to assist in documenting the plastic found and recording its form. The results are summarised in the table below: 

Table 1. Summary of plastic waste composition on a popular tourist beach in Bali. Results were documented with the ‘Marine Debris Tracker’ (NOAA & South Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative) [mobile application]. 

Type of rubbish  Frequency count  Percentage of total rubbish collected  Total time spent collecting and documenting rubbish
Cigarette butts  116  44.6%  1 hour 
Plastic food wrappers  57  21.9% 
Miscellaneous plastic pieces  54  20.8% 
Other  33  12.7% 

These results were interesting, as the highest plastic product polluted was found to be cigarette butts. In fact, it is believed that the frequency of these butts was likely to be even higher than the survey effort, as they were more difficult to distinguish in the sand in comparison to other rubbish. What makes this interesting is that Indonesians have the highest smoking rates in the world, and an assumption is that they are therefore likely contributing significantly to this cigarette pollution (Hurt, Ebbert, Achadi, & Croghan, 2012). Furthermore, plastic food wrappers, the second highest plastic waste product in the survey, was found in many Balinese food offerings; where part of this tradition is to leave the offerings on the beach for the sea to take them. This is, quite deliberately, causing direct plastic pollution into our oceans every day. 

Despite there being an apparent correlation with successful tourism areas and the amount of plastic pollution, there was still plenty of rubbish found swallowing the environments isolated from tourists. Regrettably, due to a lack of resources and time, an equal survey effort was not achieved in a non-tourist coastal environment, which would be needed in order to draw direct and comparable conclusions. However, through a rubbish clean-up on a remote Gili island, a visual comparison was able to be made and there was still a significant amount of plastic found polluting the beach (Gili Lawang, East Lombok Regency, West Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, -8.3089°, 116.7037°). While the amount of pollution appeared to be less than the tourist beach, the nature of the comparison makes it impossible to determine the significance of this difference. Not only was the survey effort severely underachieved, but even with the correct resources there were many confounding variables developed from the beach locations used. One major variable would of course be the ability of rubbish to travel large distances in waters and accumulate in locations not responsible for it (Barnes, Galgani, Thompson & Barlaz, 2009). In the Indonesian Archipelago, this is highly likely due to the closeness of many islands. In particular, the remote Gili island used for visual comparisons is close to Gili Trawangan, which is a major tourist island (Kurniawan, Adrianto, Bengen, & Prasetyo, 2016). This factor alone would suggest that the origins of the rubbish found is inconclusive, and could dramatically skew any comparisons made. Furthermore, it was found that the tourist-based beach was in fact being raked clean every day; presumably in order to maintain visual appeal to tourists. This suggests that the actual rubbish polluted on tourist beaches is expected to be much higher than what the survey effort established. 

Despite not being able to draw significant conclusions on the impact of tourists on the amount of plastic pollution, I believe it is a fair assumption to say that both locals and tourists were having a negative impact on coastal environments through their plastic waste. While no evidence-supported data was collected, many visual confirmations of both tourists and Indonesian locals carelessly leaving their rubbish behind led me to believe that this increase in plastic pollution was a joint effort. 

Coastal environments outside of Indonesia have conducted studies measuring this relationship between coastal tourism and sea pollution. A case study in Turkey found that an increase in population during tourist high seasons resulted in increased pollution, and that the absence of appropriate waste management infrastructure would further increase the impact (Kocasoy, 1989). This is extremely relevant for Indonesia’s pollution issue, as proper waste management procedures are severely lacking (Kurniawan, Adrianto, Bengen, & Prasetyo, 2016). It was therefore important to not only assess the plastic pollution within Indonesia, but how their mitigation efforts and waste management strategies were affecting it. 

There appears to be multiple organisations throughout Indonesia that are dedicated towards the problem of plastic waste. The Coral Triangle Centre (2017) is one such organisation, and is focused on protecting and managing marine environments and their biodiversity within the Coral Triangle of Indonesia. Whilst not directly mitigating pollution, this is helping reduce the impacts that toxic plastic brings upon marine life. They also aim to educate both tourists and locals on plastic waste and what they can do to contribute (Coral Triangle Centre, 2017). Other organisations take a direct approach to the pollution. Gili Eco Trust (2018), based in Gili Trawangan, contribute towards mitigation by collecting already discarded trash on the streets and beaches, and running this through their own recycling system. They also provide incentives to volunteers such as free food and alcohol in order to achieve mass beach cleans (Gili Eco Trust, 2018). While each of these organisations have different strategies of plastic waste mitigation, they all appear to focus on mitigating macroplastics. Microplastics are much less talked about, perhaps due to the nature of them being less noticeable to the human eye. Microplastics are also much harder to manage, and so it seems that the most effective way to reduce microplastics is to focus on reducing the creation of them, rather than reducing the microparticles that are already present (Eriksen, Thiel, Prindiville, & Kiessling, 2017). 

Despite the efforts of small organisations, however, there is still concern over the contributions and knowledge of the general public (Kurniawan, Adrianto, Bengen, & Prasetyo, 2016). In fact, during my time in Indonesia it appeared that many people from secluded communities were entirely unaware of the impacts of plastic waste, and were discarding unfathomable amounts of rubbish into rivers and streets. More importantly, tourists – who came from countries with appropriate recycling systems in place – appeared to be much more negligible with correct rubbish disposal whilst in Indonesia. This suggests that even though there are many organisations dedicated to education and mitigation, there needs to be more effort here so that more people are aware of the impacts. Furthermore, the population of Indonesia also needs to have alternative options to littering, which many remote communities do not even have access to (Munawar, Yunardi, Lederer, & Fellner, 2018). Tourist destinations were found to have many segregation bins scattered throughout the area (i.e. rubbish, recycling, compost), but this is often later recombined and thrown into landfills that are already overflowing (Munawar, Yunardi, Lederer, & Fellner, 2018). Isolated populations do not even have the luxury of regulated landfills, and their litter is often buried or burnt (Meidiana & Gamse, 2010). The blame here is not placed on the Indonesian population, but in fact its government and associated waste management. With proper waste management procedures, such as rubbish collection and processing, there would be a much greater chance that both tourists and locals would follow proper recycling procedures (Lebreton et al., 2017). The Indonesian government has indeed pledged US$1 billion dollars to reduce ocean waste by 70% by 2025, but this is in no way legally-binding and seems overly ambitious (Economist World Ocean’s Summit, Bali, Indonesia, February 2017). The national government also has the ability to create incentives and disincentives for reducing rubbish, and yet these are still negligible (Meidiana & Gamse, 2010). The government needs to strengthen its legal framework and provide more waste management facilities for its country in order to make any real difference in mitigating the amount of plastic waste and its impacts (Meidiana & Gamse, 2010). 

It is clear that there are worldwide distributions of plastic waste, with catastrophic consequences (Lebreton et al., 2017). Indonesia in particular is an identified hotspot for plastic pollution into oceans, and while it was expected that tourists would be the largest contributor to this title, it seems that non-tourist areas are still producing similar pollution levels. This would be a great topic for further study, as this paper established more of a review of personal findings rather than conclusive, comparable results. Finally, the efforts towards mitigation of plastic waste in Indonesia appear to be as concerning as the plastic pollution itself. If plastics in the ocean (and hence microplastics) are to be reduced to a significant level, education and governmental intervention is needed to be reviewed and improved to achieve this (Meidiana & Gamse, 2010). 7 


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By | 2018-07-20T14:38:12+00:00 July 19th, 2018|CERES Global, Indonesia, Plastic Free July|2 Comments


  1. Jenny Bartlett July 20, 2018 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    Terrific summary Nikita! It was an interesting read and you covered a lot. This type of survey gives a great insight into the issue. I liked how you wrote about the behaviour of both locals and tourists e.g. cigarette littering. I would like to talk to you about your activities on the trip. I’ve been to India with CERES Global and I am considering another trip. Thanks again.

    • Sophie Edwards July 20, 2018 at 10:29 pm - Reply

      Hi Jenny,
      Its Sophie from CERES Global here as I moderate and put content up on our blog. Feel free to send me an email at sophie@ceres.org.au with your inquiries.

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