Since first published in the February 2015 issue of the US journal Science, claims that Indonesia is the world’s second-largest ocean polluter after China, have been quoted widely; by the United Nations and the mainstream media, and are generally accepted by all and sundry, even by the Indonesian government.

International organisations and NGOs, taking their lead from the UN, have also pressured Indonesia to take strong action to deal with the plastics littering the seas primarily because of its effect on sea ecosystems such as coral reefs. Indonesia’s status as one of the biggest marine polluters on Earth was also highlighted in the UN’s maiden Ocean Conference in New York in June 2017.

The article in Science, which initiated the global outrage – ‘Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean’ – was written by a team from University of Georgia’s College of Engineering led by associate professor Jenna Jambeck. It estimated that 2.5 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste was generated in 2010 by 6.4 billion people living in 192 coastal countries. The prediction is that plastics waste will roughly track plastics resin production which was more than 270m tonnes in 2010.

The researchers then built a framework and calculated the amount of mismanaged plastics waste generated annually worldwide by populations living within 50km of a coast that can potentially enter the ocean as marine debris. For each of 192 coastal countries with at least 100 permanent residents that border the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean and Black seas, the framework includes: The mass of waste generated per capita annually; the percentage of waste that is plastics; and the percentage of plastics waste that is mismanaged and, therefore, has the potential to enter the ocean as marine debris.

By applying a range of conversion rates from mismanaged waste to marine debris, it estimated the mass of plastics waste entering the ocean from each country in 2010, then factored in population growth data to project the increase in mass up to 2025, and predicted growth in the percentage of waste that is plastics.


Plastics wrapped coral

A more recent study, also published in the US journal Science in January 2018, by Lamb et al, surveyed 159 coral reefs in Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Australia between 2011 and 2014 and found that billions of plastics items were entangled in the reefs.

Plastics waste can promote microbial colonisation by pathogens implicated in outbreaks of coral disease and the research assessed the influence of plastics waste on disease risk in 124,000 reef-building corals. The likelihood of disease increases from 4 to 89 per cent when corals come in contact with plastics.

Plastics levels on coral reefs correspond to estimates of terrestrial mismanaged plastics waste entering the ocean and an estimated 11.1 billion plastics items are entangled on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific. This is projected to increase 40 per cent by 2025.

Once again Indonesia came out as the top polluter, while Australian reefs were the least polluted.


Kicking back

“People can say they accept or reject the results. But I personally don’t really believe [the findings],” said marine scientist Professor Dirhamsyah, who heads the Center of Oceanography Research at the government-sanctioned Indonesian Science Institute (LIPI).

“Many parties have said Indonesia’s seas have been polluted by plastics and other materials. We want to determine whether this is accurate,” said Prof Dirhamsyah at the launch of an Indonesian survey.

Reza Cordova, an LIPI marine scientist and lead researcher of the institution’s upcoming study, said LIPI was trying to fill in the gaps in the data on marine debris in Indonesia’s seas, because the Indonesian government has yet to record official data on the subject. Most of the data, he said, came from outside parties like NGOs.

LIPI will begin gathering data for the study at the end of this month. It has identified around 20 locations in the country where sampling will take place. Eight universities in Indonesia and relevant agencies will help the institution conduct the study.

Researchers will focus on at least one seashore area in each of the 20 sampling sites, which are located in 16 provinces. In each seashore, researchers will use 50-100 sq m transects in three different locations to calculate the weight of and amount of debris in each transect.

The sampling will be conducted once a month, especially during full moons when high tides are expected to bring in more debris from the sea to the seashore. Reza said the results from the 20 locations could be used to calculate a nationwide estimate.

The method had never been used before, Reza claimed, adding that the institute was open to collaborating with NGOs to verify the sampling process. Reza said it would take at least 12 months for his team to conclude the study, which he expected to be the basis for the country’s effort to combat the problem of marine debris.

“From the study, we can give suggestions to the government on regions in Indonesia that need specific attention,” said Reza. “Plastics is a silent killer for sea creatures.”

Representing the government, Andi Rusandi, Director of Marine Conservation and Biodiversity at the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, welcomed LIPI’s initiative, “The study will calculate the amount of marine debris in Indonesia, it will help the government to take a step forward.”