Site icon Conservation news

As planned excise flops, Indonesia ponders how to give up plastic bags

  • The proliferation of free plastic shopping bags, coupled with a lack of recycling infrastructure and a general disregard for waste management have turned Indonesia into one of the major contributors to the global plastic waste crisis.
  • The government has backed down from imposing an excise on plastic shopping bags, planned for this month, following opposition from manufacturers and the Industry Ministry.
  • The plan is the second to fall through, after a pilot program to charge consumers for plastic bags was abandoned by retailers in 2016.
  • Plastics producers say the main problem is the inadequate waste management system to deal with all the waste.

JAKARTA — Suryadi, a cashier at a convenience store in Jakarta, says he prepares some 400 plastic bags every morning for the day’s shoppers. Sometimes he runs out before the end of the day and has to restock.

“It’s quite rare to see someone bring their own shopping bag or decline a plastic bag, even if they’re only buying a deodorant stick,” Suryadi tells Mongabay.

Not far from the store, hundreds of people flock to a traditional market for their groceries every day. The produce on offer ranges from onions and chili peppers to fish and meat — almost all of it packed in plastic bags.

The bags are “more convenient,” says Endang, a vendor at the market. She can’t say how many she hands out daily, but notes that she bags nearly everything she sells.

Plastic bags are handed out freely at stores and markets across Indonesia. The country ranks just behind China for the volume of plastic waste it dumps into the world’s oceans. Image by Sapariah Saturi/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Plastic bags abound at stores, markets and malls throughout Indonesia — as well as in the country’s rivers, beaches and landfills. Consumers here went through 9.8 billion plastic bags in 2016 alone, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, typically using them just once before discarding them. The practice has made Indonesia, a country of some 250 million people, the second-biggest contributor to the plastic trash crisis in the oceans, behind only China. It produces 3.22 million tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste every year, of which 1.29 million tonnes ends up in the sea.

The problem has prompted calls from both within the country and around the world for the Indonesian government to take steps to curb the waste, particularly in the use of plastic shopping bags. The government responded by announcing earlier this year that it would impose an excise on plastic bags that would come into effect this month. The Finance Ministry, which proposed the plan, said it expected the move would both reduce consumption of plastic bags while also generating 500 billion rupiah ($34.5 million) in revenue.

But the planned excise has failed to get off the ground, amid strong opposition from plastics manufacturers and their main backer in the government, the Industry Ministry. The Finance Ministry has backed down, promising to address to the issue again next year. Realistically, though, widespread acceptance of a plastic bag excise could take another two years, experts say.

Plastic floating in the sea. Image by Ben Mierement/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (public domain).

‘Not the solution’

The failure of the excise mirrors that of a similar initiative by the government in 2016 to charge a 200 rupiah levy, or about 1 U.S. cent, on plastic shopping bags. The pilot program was rolled out in 23 cities, including Jakarta. In the three months that it ran, there was a 55 percent reduction in plastic waste, according to the Indonesia Plastic Bag Diet Movement (GIDKP), an advocacy group. A separate assessment by the Indonesian Consumer Foundation (YLKI) found 40 percent of shoppers in Jakarta stopped using plastic bags.

But participating retailers refused to continue beyond the trial period, saying that charging customers for the bags remained a controversial policy without a sound legal basis.

This time around, the government hoped to avoid that problem by going with an excise on plastic producers instead of a levy targeting consumers. (The end result would have been the same, with the producers passing on the costs to consumers.) The Finance Ministry is authorized to impose an excise on any products considered harmful to the public or the environment and whose consumption therefore needs to be regulated, such as tobacco and alcohol.

The proposal was welcomed by the environment ministry, which had led the earlier, failed, effort. It said the excise would spur the domestic plastics industry to switch to making bags made from biodegradable material, thereby contributing to an overall reduction in plastic waste.

Plastics manufacturers, however, were far from convinced. “Imposing an excise on plastic bags will have a large impact on the plastics industry, including small and medium enterprises,” the Indonesian Olefin, Aromatic and Plastic Industry Association (Inaplas), said in a press release in March.

It said the excise “is not the solution” toward a trash-free environment, but would instead be “a burden imposed on consumers that will ultimately be to the detriment of Indonesia’s development.”

The plastics manufacturers also found a strong ally in the Industry Ministry, whose approval was necessary for the excise to go through.

Nugroho Wahyu Widodo, a director at the Finance Ministry, said in early July that the Industry Ministry “is concerned that the excise could disrupt small and medium enterprises especially, which use a lot [of plastic bags], so it would be a [cost] burden.”

Indonesia previously tried charging consumers a token fee for plastic shopping bags, but the plan was abandoned by retailers. Image by Anton Muhajir/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Waste management

On a per capita basis, Indonesia’s plastic consumption is dwarfed by that of other countries. The average Indonesian goes through some 17 kilograms (37 pounds) of plastic each year, compared to 35 kilograms (77 pounds) for Malaysians and 40 kilograms (88 pounds) for Thais. But it’s the size of the country’s population — the world’s fourth-biggest — that gives rise to the sheer amount of waste generated. Plastic consumption in 2017 may have increased to 21 kilograms (46 pounds) per person, according to Inaplas projections.

Any effort to chip away at that number would thus have a significant impact on reducing the total plastic waste being generated. Nugroho said the Finance Ministry hadn’t abandoned the excise plan, and expected to bring it up again during budget discussions next year.

But even that might be too soon, according to the GIDKP, the advocacy group.

“This excise tax was to discourage the public’s tendency for single-use plastic bags,” Tiza Mafira, the group’s director, told Mongabay. However, she said, the government’s target for the plan was ambitious.

“I wasn’t surprised that the plan couldn’t come into effect this month,” she said. “Considering the various stakeholders that must agree on the plan, I think it would take at least two years for it to be approved.”

Inaplas says the problem isn’t the proliferation of plastic bags, but rather how to deal with the waste.

“The main issue in terms of plastic waste is the ineffective waste management system and low awareness of [keeping the environment] clean, and not the material from which the bags are made,” the association said in its press release. To that end, it urged the government, industry and nonprofit organizations to support the development of a comprehensive and effective waste management infrastructure.

A manta ray swims amid plastic pollution in Indonesian waters. Image by Elitza Germanov/Marine Megafauna Foundation.

Long-term strategy

An increasing number of countries around the world are taxing plastic bags, while some are completely banning them. In Denmark, the use of plastic shopping bags has dropped by more than 40 percent since 1993, when it became the first country to impose such a tax. Ireland passed a similar measure in 2002, and has seen plastic bag use drop by 94 percent, as consumers switched to cloth bags.

But an outright ban on plastic bags can bring problems of its own. In Rwanda, a nationwide prohibition enacted in 2008 has led to a flourishing black market for plastic bags, which are smuggled around like illicit drugs.

In the case of Indonesia, Mafira suggested imposing stringent manufacturing standards on plastics manufacturers to ensure the bags in circulation were easily recyclable.

“Most countries impose a thickness limit for plastic bags. The thinner the plastic, the more difficult it is to recycle,” she said, adding that many countries had banned polythene bags thinner than 20 microns, or 0.02 millimeters. In India the minimum thickness is 40 microns.

Having thicker plastic bags available, Mafira said, would encourage people from using them more than once, and would improve the chances that they could be recycled. She also called for wider production of biodegradable plastic bags, which are typically more expensive to manufacture.

But as with the failed excise, imposing these higher standards on producers would require approval from the Industry Ministry. Still, Mafira said both measures could be adopted eventually.

“The key is to have higher standards for plastic bags available and impose an excise on them to reduce overconsumption by the public,” she said. “[Manufacturers] need to have a long-term strategy so they can adapt to consumers’ progressive preferences. People are becoming more aware of the harms of plastic waste,” she said.

The Indonesian government plans to spend $1 billion over the next five years to reduce marine debris, much of it plastic waste. The goal is to cut it by 70 percent by 2025, according to the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs. And once again, it’s the Industry Ministry that will have “the biggest role in controlling plastics over the next five years,” according to Safri Burhanuddin, a senior official at the coordinating ministry.

Back at the convenience store, Suryadi, the cashier, says he supports reducing the use of plastic shopping bags.

“I guess we don’t actually need that many plastic bags, do we?” he says. “My grandmother used to have a woven bag for grocery shopping. We can go back to that.”

Some plastic garbage on Kuta beach, one of the main destinations in Indonesia’s Bali island. Image by Luh De Suriyani/Mongabay-Indonesia.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.