YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — Dressed in a hazmat suit with boots, gloves and a mask, Prigi Arisandi waded into a river north of Yogyakarta, a city in the center of the island of Java. The toxic mess he was planning to clean up from a river that locals still rely on for their water: used diapers.
“It’s the same in Jogja as anywhere else — people throw used diapers into the river,” he said, referring to the city by its nickname. “There are thousands of them.”
Prigi and a colleague had spent the day surveying rivers in neighboring Magelang district, traveling in a blue pickup truck emblazoned with a “Diaper Evacuation Brigade” badge. What they’d found in those rivers was the same as in rivers they’d surveyed elsewhere in Java: Nearly all of them were clogged with used disposable diapers, especially near bridges — the easiest spots from which to dump waste into waterways.
“This is a threat to Java’s rivers,” Prigi said. “Diaper trash contains toxic waste.”
Java, the most densely populated large island in the world — about the size of the Britain, but home to 140 million people — is notorious for its polluted rivers. The Citarum River in western Java has been dubbed the world’s most polluted; the government recently sent in the military to help clean it up.
As a child growing up in Surabaya, Java’s second-largest city, in the eastern part of the island, Prigi saw firsthand the degradation of the Surabaya River, mostly from toxic effluent dumped by factories that started operating along the riverbank in the 1980s.
Later, while studying at a university in the city, Prigi decided to do something about it. He founded an NGO, Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (Ecoton), and went on to develop a river education program that was implemented in dozens of schools. In 2011, Prigi won the prestigious Goldman Prize for his efforts.
In 2015, Prigi came across a study by Nielsen, the global marketing research firm, that showed just how many diapers Indonesians were going through: 6 billion a year, according to the study. For parents with an infant, diapers ranked second in importance only to baby formula. In East Java alone, six factories produce 16 million diapers a day, with the industry dominated by Unicharm, a Japanese manufacturer.
In Prigi’s view, the industry selling the diapers was doing nothing about the waste.
“Is it right for companies to produce as much as they can but take no responsibility for the waste?” he asked. “The environment is the victim.”
Disposable diapers, Prigi observed, were universally available — and cheap, at just 2,500 rupiah (about 17 U.S. cents) apiece.
Household and landfill trash in Indonesia is typically incinerated. But in East Java, there’s a widely held belief that a baby will develop a rash if its used diaper is burned after being disposed of. Hence, parents end up throwing the diapers into rivers.
That adds up to a lot of diapers. The area around the Brantas River in East Java, for instance, is home to some 750,000 infants, according to government figures. If each child goes through four diapers a day, that’s potentially up to 3 million used diapers produced daily, Ecoton estimates. Prigi says 60 percent of families who live near the Brantas throw their used diapers into the river. “At least a million and a half diapers are thrown in that river every day,” he said.
The effects on the river ecosystem from this practice were identified in a 2017 Ecoton study: The NGO found that 80 percent of the fish in the river were female, while the rest were a mix of male and intersex. A healthy ecosystem should have a roughly equal proportion of female and male fish, Prigi said, and blamed the imbalance on the chemical cocktail in the gel lining of the diapers. In another finding, from earlier this year, Ecoton found that plastic fragments and fibers in the stomachs of fish from the Brantas River.
Prigi said these were most likely from the diapers, adding that local governments across Java had failed to tackle the “diaper flood.”
Used diapers contain a long list of chemical components, as well as microplastics — solid plastic particles less than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) long — and microbeads — under 1 millimeter — that don’t degrade easily.
The diaper crisis in the Brantas prompted environmentalists in East Java to file a lawsuit in December 2017 against the provincial government. In April this year, however, a court ruled against the plaintiffs.
Still, Prigi called on the state and diaper companies to take action in controlling the waste. He said local governments should put up signs warning people against dumping waste in rivers, while the companies should adopt greater accountability for the disposal of their products.
He suggested that local governments establish drop-off sites for used diapers and carry out community education programs on the impacts of disposable diapers and how to properly manage the waste at home.
Prigi also noted that dumping diapers, or any other kind of waste, into rivers is a violation of the 2008 law on waste management.
He said consumers should cut back on their use of disposable diapers and switch to reusable cloth diapers, adding that this had the added benefit of being cheaper over the long term. (The assertion that reusable diapers really are cheaper remains a topic of debate, with critics noting that they have a higher chance of irritating the baby’s skin if they aren’t washed properly, and that they need to be washed with detergent, which adds to the household waste output.)
“There isn’t any preventive effort or education program for consumers of disposable diapers or pressure on the producers [from the government],” Prigi said.
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