Illustration by Sarah Torina Coulthard, local artist.

“For the indigenous Timor people, the Earth is our body; the land is our flesh, water is our blood, (the) forest is the artery and hair and stone is our backbone. If one of these parts go missing, the Earth will be paralysed.” – Aleta Baun, Dilmah conservation.

In December 2018, I, a then second-year undergrad, decided to go a full month without purchasing any items that contained plastic. It was a challenge that I, regrettably, failed to accomplish. I left the experience feeling frustrated yet emboldened; the conclusion I drew at the time was that people with low disposable incomes and high-intensity work schedules will struggle to avoid plastic in all areas of their life. Whilst becoming totally plastic-free is not impossible, it is certainly by no means practical, especially when considering the cost factor. Companies and supermarkets are not making it easier or cheaper to go zero waste, and the British government has no tangible plans to change this, as plastic pollution appears to have taken a backseat to the carbon emissions challenge. This does not necessarily absolve us of the responsibility of going low-waste however, because if we’ve learned anything from the past two parts of this column, it’s that positive change is possible through the actions of individuals; climate doomerism achieves nothing. 

With regards to managing our plastic waste, however, I feel as though we, the British general public, have lost the fervour we had prior to the Covid pandemic. Anecdotally I happened to be in London on the Queen’s Jubilee, and I must say it is hard to rationalise how 2 out of 3 of us believe that plastic waste is an important issue whilst I see bins overflowing with non-recyclable trash. If you want to see how easy it is for people to give up on sorting their rubbish properly, you can look no further than the bins at major public events. As I watched person after person try, and fail, to squeeze their used sandwich boxes into sizable bins already filled to capacity, I wondered what would eventually happen to all those non-recyclable Sainsbury’s On the Go Scotch Egg films. As it turns out, if they aren’t eaten by some unsuspecting animal or wedged permanently under a disused car, there’s a good chance those films will end up in our oceans. Think of it this way, the litter in the streets will not stay there permanently and will likely get carried by the rain and wind into drains, rivers, and streams which eventually connect to the ocean. Even the plastics that you diligently place in the bins designated for landfill are light enough to be blown away en route and end up in the same place. This might not sound like much, but when you consider the sheer volume of plastic produced globally and the ease with which films, wrappers, or boxes end up in bodies of water, it’s not surprising that 80% of the plastic in the ocean comes from land (with the remainder from marine sources like abandoned vessels and fishing nets). 

When we look at which countries are the biggest polluters in this regard, India and China come out as the top two, with a combined wastage of almost 200 million kg per year. Reports tend to place the UK as being the 10th worst polluter, dumping about 703,000 kg of plastic, however, this number does not account for the plastic waste shipped to developing countries; infamously in 2020, Malaysia returned 42 shipping containers of illegally imported plastic waste to the UK. Whilst efforts have been made to ban countries from shipping out unsorted plastic waste for non-OECD countries to deal with, post-Brexit UK is under no obligation to comply. To get us back on track, we draw inspiration from two sisters, who at the ages of 12 and 10, got an entire country to listen and a government to act.

Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest producers of plastic and consistently ranks within the top three of the worst marine polluters. A recent report by the World Bank found that of the 7.8 million tonnes of plastic produced by Indonesia, more than half becomes mismanaged plastic waste (MPW) which is improperly managed waste stored in open or insecure landfills and is thus very likely to leak into the environment. Two-thirds of MWPs in Indonesia actually come from rural communities with limited collection services or disposal infrastructures cited as the main cause. Without appropriate collection points in place, the waste accumulated by these communities is left exposed and is eventually taken up by the rivers into the ocean. It is very likely that with current plastic production, we should expect more plastic (by weight) than fish in the sea. If we consider the better-known consequences of marine plastic for a moment, the typical image of seabirds with bellies full of plastic and tortoises stabbed with plastic straws spring to mind. But the more insidious problem with plastics lies in their durability. In a similar manner to rocks and glass that get weathered by the waves, plastic will slowly break apart and become much smaller pieces of microplastics. Alarm bells certainly start ringing when you learn that out of 22 healthy adults studied by researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 17 had microplastics in their blood, which correlates with findings of high microplastic concentrations in the stool of Indonesian fishermen living in the coastal area of Surabaya. 

A sprawling metropolis on the northeastern border of Java Island, Surabaya is a modern industrial city bursting with history, architecture, and stunning national parks. But with rapid urbanisation comes increasing consumption of single-use plastic, and with weak waste management infrastructure, you have a recipe for disaster. Different types of microplastics were found in their seafood, drinking water, and even toothpaste, with the results indicating that human and consumable contamination may be prevalent amongst the coastal Indonesian population. Whilst long-term exposure to microplastics is not fully known, several studies have shown toxicity effects associated with microplastics causing DNA damage and increasing the risk of cancer. What’s worse is we haven’t even considered the major pollution that comes with the production of plastics in the first place (over 99% of plastic is made from fossil-fuel-derived chemicals). With such an endemic problem, how did Melati and Isabel Wijsen react?

The Wijsen sisters were inspired to campaign for a ban on single-use plastic bags after seeing the impact of plastic pollution in their communities. Starting small, they utilised social media to spread awareness about Bali’s plastic problem and lead by example, clearing up their towns, rivers, and beaches. Their social initiative, Bye Bye Plastic Bags, had mobilised their peers at school into climate activists, and together they organised mass beach clean-up events (now an annual affair with about 150 tons of plastic cleared to date). With their goal of banning single-use bags in mind, and after several years of grassroots campaigning, Melati and Isabel, then 18 and 16 respectively, staged a hunger strike in an attempt to shake the Balinese government into action, and in doing so brought global attention to their cause. Their efforts culminated in victory, with the Balinese government banning single-use plastic bags effective July 2019; in fact, just last month, the government announced plans to eliminate single-use plastics by the end of 2022 to coincide with the G20 summit. Unfortunately for the sisters, it looks like there is still much work to be done. Heavy reliance on single-use plastics during the covid pandemic as well as lax implementations of the ban has led to a resurgence in plastic bag usage. Whilst they continue their fight for a plastic-free Bali, the sisters have shifted their focus on empowering young people to become changemakers themselves, again using the power of social media to train youth activists in effective campaigning.

Aeshnina (Nina) Azzahra Aqilani (15) recalls a similar experience after discovering that a large amount of plastic waste in her home region of Gresik Regency, East Java, had come from countries like Germany and the US. “There’s a really, really, really big impact. The waste is from the Western countries, the rich countries, the developed countries. And the developing countries, the poor countries, feel the impacts. So that’s unfair.” As she points out, the fallout from receiving large amounts of plastic waste with an inadequate waste-handling infrastructure leads to more insidious problems. For instance, even when recyclable plastic is separated from the imported waste and handled, contaminated wastewater from the recycling process will be discharged into the rivers in Nina’s region. If the plastic is incinerated, its ashes get taken up in the feed of farm animals, poisoning livestock with unsafe levels of dioxins. In response, she too has organised with her peers and has campaigned for local and international change. 

The youth of Indonesia are a force to be reckoned with, and are a remarkable example of the influence and effect that youth-led, grassroots activism can have, both in their communities and also when establishing a dialogue with world leaders. Greater awareness of climate issues amongst the global youth population is now a necessity and I firmly believe that the actions of Melati, Isabel, and Nina can, and will, inspire tangible activism in young people. Children are aware of, and unfortunately burdened with, the failures of their governments to respond to the climate crisis, with research suggesting more children are suffering from climate anxiety and understand that this will impact their future. Perhaps giving them the tools to engage with these problems rather than just learning about them can foster a stronger will to exact change. I found real inspiration in the young activists I’ve discussed in this article, and it has certainly rekindled that pre-Covid, aiming-for-zero-plastic spirit in me. 

At the same time, I am cognizant of the fact that to achieve more impactful change, one has to be aware of national and international government policy. If your trash started collecting in your room and overflowing your bins, and your rich flatmate began adding to your already growing pile, because god-forbid they deal with their waste themselves, well you’d probably have some things to say about it. Whilst that may not be happening in your homes, it’s happening on your streets, in the streets of neighbouring cities and most importantly, your trash could be ending up in the towns and rivers of countries miles away. The question we should all be asking is, what can I do to help?

“I think some people wish for change, some people are afraid of it, some people will never change- or accept change. But our generation does not have the luxury to not change.” – Melati Wisjen. 

Claire Torina Coulthard

Claire Torina Coulthard is a Chemistry DPhil at Balliol. She has a passion for communicating science and climate news and has been writing for over 4 years, starting with her time at the University of Warwick.