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Waste exported to Indonesia is contaminating food supplies, report finds

Toxic chemicals have been found in dangerous concentrations in free-range chicken eggs in Indonesian communities where plastic waste accumulates from exported materials.

In mid-November, the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) released a report that revealed that high levels of dioxins in eggs were collected near an Indonesian factory that burns plastics for fuel.

Factories near villages such as Bangun and Tropodo receive more than 50 tonnes of low-grade plastic every day, with shipments coming from countries such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, UK, and the US.

Indonesia’s plastic waste import volume doubled between 2017 and 2018, according to UN Comtrade data. IPEN indicated that in Bangun, residents burn the piles of plastic waste to reduce the sheer volume of trash clogging streets and piling up around houses. In Tropodo, the plastic waste is used to fuel local tofu factories.

The report, Plastic Waste Poisons Indonesia’s Food Chain, looks at food chain contamination in Southeast Asia as a consequence of waste mismanagement and plastic waste imports.

IPEN indicated that plastic scrap is entering Indonesia through recycling imports, including paper scrap shipments. One-and-a-half-million tonnes of imported paper scrap are used by paper recyclers as feedstock for new paper in Indonesia each year, according to IPEN.

In the past three years, the amount of plastic scrap inside paper recycling bundles imported into Indonesia increased from 2-10 per cent, to 60-70 per cent, which IPEN suggested indicated that paper scrap is being used to conceal plastic waste dumping.

Photo credit: Ecoton

Key findings from the report indicated that eggs collected near a rural plastic dump site in Bangun were contaminated by PFOS at levels comparable to highly industrialized areas in Europe.

Eggs from Tropodo and Bangun contained SCCPs and PBDEs, toxic flame-retardant chemicals used in plastics.

Researchers from the global environmental health and policy network IPEN, along with Arnika Association and Indonesian NGOs Nexus 3 and Ecoton are pushing for control of imports and stronger regulation nationally.

Nexus3 co-founder Yuyun Ismawati said plastic waste is a serious toxic chemical pollution problem.

“Our results should ring alarm bells in every community trying to deal with a tsunami of plastic waste. The global north needs to stop treating the global south as its waste bin,” Ismawati said.

IPEN advisor and report co-author Lee Bell said that the stark findings illustrate the dangers of plastics for human health and should move policy makers to ban plastic waste combustion, address environmental contamination, and rigorously control imports.

“It’s clear from the study that plastic pollution imperils human and environmental health not only from the visible deluge of plastic trash, but from the invisible chemical contaminants in plastics and those created when burning plastics,” Bell said.

Australia is taking measures to process its waste onshore, with a national ban on the export of waste glass coming into effect by July 2020.

Announced in November at a Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM), Australia will grow markets in Australia to reduce the amount of material exported to countries such as Indonesia.

Environment ministers agreed that the export bans should be completed by the following dates:

  • All waste glass by July 2020;
  • mixed waste plastics by July 2021;
  • all whole tyres including baled tyres by December 2021; and
  • remaining waste products, including mixed paper and cardboard, by no later than 30 June 2022.