What A Waste

One of the most shocking scenes in recent TV drama was played out in an episode of Madmen a couple of seasons back. Unusually for Madmen, it didn’t include the usual suspects of homophobia, sexism, or infidelity; it was something quite out of the blue and unexpected. Can you guess what it was?

It was the 3-minute scene of the Draper family having a picnic. Sitting down on a rug, the family enjoy an outdoors meal in a beautiful park setting. After the meal is finished Don gets up to stretch his legs while Betty checks the children to make sure they are clean before being allowed back into Don’s immaculate new car. Don downs the last of his beer, and then casually hurls the can away into the distance while Betty picks up the corners of the rug and shakes of the paper rubbish and remnants of their picnic onto the grass. They then drive off leaving a profusion of litter behind them.

The family picnic scene was set in 1960’s America. If that were to happen today, Betty and Don Draper would be seen as social pariahs.

I was reminded of this episode of Madmen, when I visited Pulau Tidung a couple of weeks ago. Irishman and I had been wanting to visit the Pulau Seribu, Thousand Islands just north of Jakarta ever since we arrived here so we were excited when at long last we eventually made it there. It was nice to leave the grot of Jakarta behind us and we were looking forward to spending two days on a tropical island in the middle of the Java Sea.

Imagine our dismay on finding not the paradise that we had hoped for but a huge rubbish tip instead. For the first three hours we felt a terrible sense of anti-climax. This was not what we had expected and we were shocked and deeply saddened. How could this be? How could this be allowed to happen?

The beautiful beaches, for which these islands are famous and to which visitors flock to in their hords, were choked with garbage. Disposable nappies, sweet packets, instant noodle pots, plastic bottles, broken glass, old items of clothing, discarded rubber shoes –The vegetation and trees along the beaches, their branches strewn with plastic bags, looked like they had gone through one of those plastic wrapper machines at the airport. It was quite heartbreaking.

I wandered off down the beach, leaving the Irishman and Mikey to their discussions beneath the palms. After finding a small area of sand that was relatively clean, I sat down and looked out at the vast expanse of turquoise sea in front of me and watched the plastic bottles and cartons bobbing about in the water. I was in somber mood, troubled and saddened by the ugly mess that we’d seen all over the island. I was used to seeing it in Jakarta, but I never imagined that I would find it here. As I gazed out, I spotted a pod of dolphins on the horizon.

Their unmistakable fins, their sleek grey bodies arching through the waves, what beauties! I counted them – 12 in all. I rushed back to tell the boys and we stood in awe, marveling at this wonderful sight. It was in that moment whilst watching the dolphins that I knew that I had to write this post, that I could no longer remain silent about something that I, and I’m sure many of you reading this will care passionately about; The Environment.

You only have to Google ‘rubbish, Indonesia’ and you will see what the problems are. I don’t believe these problems are unique to Indonesia, I think they are typical of all developing countries, where rapid industrialism and urbanization plus high population all take their toll on the environment. Waste is a social issue, which in turn becomes an environmental one. Waste in Indonesia is already having a massive and detrimental impact on the environment and yet the government remains half –hearted in its efforts to do anything to solve the problem. In Jakarta alone, over 10 Olympic sized swimming pools could be filled with the refuse that is generated daily. There is no recycling scheme to speak of and only the well off can afford to pay for their garbage to be collected. The men who remove the rubbish have to push heavy handcarts around in the sweltering heat and for 6 days of hard toil their reward is just £14 or $22 on which they have to support their families.

At least 20% of the garbage in Jakarta is dumped into its rivers and sewers, which then spew out into the seas. Much of the remainder is burnt adding to the canopy of pollution that hangs over the city and the rest is deposited on mountainous dumps within the city or around the outskirts. Here, the poorest of the poor can be found living in shanties built on top of the trash mountains, fashioned from materials found in the garbage, carpet, corrugated metal, old doors, rusty nails. Adults and children alike scavenge bare-footed daily amongst the filth, collecting plastic, and aluminum, anything that they can sell on. Their reward for this filthy work is a pittance but it makes the difference between surviving or not. How ironic then that the government fails to recognize that these slum dwellers who have no conception of the word ‘recycle’ in the sense that we know it, are unwittingly doing more to help the environment than their own government are.

It is not just Jakarta that has a problem managing its waste, it is all of Indonesia. The islands famous for their beautiful beaches are no longer the paradise that they once were. With mass tourism and an infrastructure unable to cope with the problems associated with waste and it’s management, no adequate landfills or domestic incinerator plants, Bali is strewn with litter and it’s not just domestic. The islands hospitals generate 700 kgs of medical waste daily. There is only one medical incinerator on the island able to deal with its disposal. Fear that the already over worked generator will pack up with the volume that needs to be disposed of daily, and lack of funds to replace it if it breaks down,  has meant that restrictions have been placed on the amount now burnt. It is local knowledge that this unincinerated waste is being dumped at sea. A damning report was published in Time Magazine, the heading read ‘Bali drowning in sewage and ‘slowly committing suicide’.

Each month 30 million plastic bottles are used on Bali alone. Factor plastic bags, plastic noodle cartons, plastic forks and spoons, polystyrene and the rest of the manmade shit that is used as packaging and already it is a headache to think about it.

Indonesia is one of the last bastions on earth that is still rich in bio-diversity and natural resources. No wonder then that companies, many from the west move in and rape and pillage the land extracting precious minerals, gold, oil, and gas. Add to that the growing demand for timber and wood pulp, and no surprise then that deforestation is now a major concern. Much of the logging is done in an unsustainable way and also much of it done illegally.  It is thought that 80% of the timber that leaves these shores is taken in this way. Within the past 5 years, an area of forest larger than the size of Portugal, has vanished and with it much of it’s natural habitat. Orangutans and the Sumatran rhino are now on the verge of extinction and a list of 15 mammals are on the critical list. 140 other species are on the danger list, when will this stop? And it’s not just the animals, the forest people of Sumatra who for centuries have lived and worked in the forests, making a livelihood through logging, are now just a whisker away from being lost forever. Not only the Forest people, but also local and central governments are losing precious revenue from this illicit timber trade. There is not the funding or support to maintain a system to protect this delicate eco-structure.

It’s not just the land and forests that are under threat. It is the rivers and oceans too. Global warming and high pollution levels from industrial, domestic waste and agro-chemicals leech into the rivers and out into the seas.  Over-exploitation of marine resources, and over fishing caused by high demand from abroad, destructive fishing using cyanide to blast the fragile coral reefs have affected the eco-system and the vast number of marine species that depend on them. Indonesian waters are part of The Coral Triangle, one of the most diverse marine habitats on Earth whose resources support 126 million people. What will happen to the people whose livelihoods depend on the sea if it continues to be abused in such a way? Much is being done to help protect it, but it is still not enough.

The Indonesian government naturally is keen to sell eco-tourism but it needs to be thought out and funded properly. If I use Komodo Island, famous for it’s ‘Dragons’ as an example you can see just how damaging too many tourists can be. Komodo Island is now a National Park but with the constant flow of visitors (54,000 tourists visited the small island in 2010) there are now concerns about the rare dragon’s safety and welfare. With such a constant flow of visitors their normal patterns are being disturbed and their once tranquil life is being disrupted and to what end? There are not enough funds being handed out to ensure proper enforcements of the islands rules and regulations, which mean not enough rangers to manage the tourists and keep a check on the dragons. Meanwhile in the waters around the islands, local fishermen are using handmade bombs to blast the coral reefs to flush out the fish. This leaves some of the richest areas in the world for diving, and important marine research destroyed beyond recognition.

I’ve nearly finished though there’s much more that I could say. I don’t want this post to turn into some long-winded eco-moan so instead I’d like to end with my thoughts on what I believe can be done. I am not a Politician (thankfully) and I am not a scientist (sadly) in fact I don’t have an ’ology to my name, but I do read a lot. I read blogs, newspapers and articles and I do know how rightfully proud Indonesians are of their incredibly beautiful country. It is not their will that it has come to this, it is because there isn’t enough will from those that should, and could, do something more to protect and care for this incredible place. I don’t believe that it is too late for something to be done to stop this, but it needs to be done NOW. In 10 years time, it will be too late.

Here are my thoughts on what I think can be done.


A massive campaign needs to be started in schools and universities NOW to inform the children and young students of the impact of theirs, and their families waste on the environment. This is not just Indonesia’s problem, this is a GLOBAL PROBLEM. We are all accountable for what is happening right now on our planet. Don’t think that this is not your problem, because it is.

PLASTIC. If I were a scientist, I wouldn’t be writing this post, I would be working day and night to find a way to make packaging that had the lowest impact on the environment possible. PLASTIC is one of the greatest curses of all time. Indonesia has so many natural and renewable resources that could be used to carry groceries etc. We do not need our red peppers wrapped to within an inch of their life, and then placed in a polystyrene tray.

PROPER AND EFFICIENT WASTE MANAGEMENT. I spoke earlier about the unsung heroes who live in the slums on top of the garbage mountains here in Jakarta and all over Indonesia’s cities. With proper pay and adequate protection against the terrors that lurk in the garbage, they could help sort the waste and a much needed government backed re-cycling scheme could be initiated. This would bring employment to the many who so desperately need it AND lay the foundations for an efficient waste management programme.

FOREIGN COMPANIES. If foreign companies such as oil, gas and timber take out from Indonesia, then they should be prepared to GIVE BACK. Help aid and fund educational projects for saving Indonesia from further destruction, much of which has been made by them. NIKE has much to answer for. Not only do they pay their staff so little money that many of them have to leave their children in order to work, the stories of verbal and physical abuse are heartbreaking. Child labour, sweatshops, dangerous working conditions….AND they leave a wake of pollution. Rivers (whose water is drunk and used to wash in by the many who live in the areas) is so contaminated from the hormone disrupting chemicals in the products that Nike use that both environmental and human health is gravely at risk. They also burn rubber, the effects of which are known carcinogens. How can companies such as NIKE be SO callous?

I leave you with a quote from The Revenge Of Gaia (James Lovelock)

“The founders of the great religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism lived at times when we were far less numerous and lived in a way that was no burden to the Earth. Those holy men would have had no inkling of the troubled state of the planet a thousand or more years later, and their concern, rightly, would have been for human affairs. Rules and guidance were needed for individual, family and tribal good behaviour; we were the human family growing up in the natural world of Gaia and, like children, we took our home for granted and never questioned its existence.”

This post is dedicated to the many people all over Indonesia who either work, or volunteer their time and energy in helping to clear up the mess that others have left behind.