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