Indonesia's Food Supply Is Being Contaminated by Imported Plastics

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An eye-opening report reveals how low-grade plastics are burned as fuel, poisoning the surrounding soil and air.

A distressing report has come out of Indonesia this week. Researchers from the Sweden-based International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) have found that plastic waste shipped from Western countries is contaminating Indonesia's food supply.

What's happening is that local tofu producers (a staple food) are burning plastic waste imports as fuel in their factories. The fumes are toxic, poisoning the surrounding air and causing numerous health problems for local residents. The plastic ash also falls to the ground or is pulled from the furnaces and spread out by residents on the ground as a way to dispose of it. Free-range chickens then peck the ground for feed and ingest the toxic ash, which contaminates their eggs.

IPEN's researchers knew that testing eggs would reveal the presence of chemicals, but they were not expecting the results to be so dire. BBC reports:

"The tests found eating one egg would exceed the European Food Safety Authority tolerable daily intake for chlorinated dioxins 70 times over. Researchers said this was the second-highest level of dioxins in eggs ever measured in Asia – only behind an area of Vietnam contaminated by the chemical weapon Agent Orange. The eggs also contained toxic flame-retardant chemicals, SCCPs and PBDEs, used in plastics."

(The area of Vietnam that's mentioned has been contaminated for 50 years and recently began a decade-long cleanup funded by the United States to the tune of $390 million.)

As the New York Times explains, this horrific pollution starts with Westerners' well-intentioned act of tossing plastic in the recycling bin. They think it will be turned into something useful, like running shoes or fleecy sweaters or toothbrushes, but that's unlikely. Instead it gets shipped abroad to places like Indonesia, which have filled the void since China closed its doors to plastic imports nearly two years ago.

Indonesia does not have good recycling facilities, nor the infrastructure to cope with the roughly 50 tons of low-grade plastic it receives daily, much of which is sneaked illegally into paper shipments by foreign exporters as a way of getting rid of it. Once stuck with the unwanted plastic, Indonesia trucks it off to villages that use it as fuel.

The New York Times report has shocking photos of plastic being used in tofu factories. To those of us in the West, the thought of burning large quantities of plastic is cringe-inducing, but when it's one-tenth the cost of wood and there are mountains of it all around and no government regulation to speak of, the Indonesian villagers feel they have no choice.

Those of us at the start of the plastic supply chain, however, need to realize our complicity in this awful problem. By continuing to buy plastic and 'recycling' it, we too are fuelling the cycle. We must take partial responsibility for the poisoned eggs, the black daytime fog, the repeated hospitalizations of children who cannot breathe.

Indonesia air pollution infographic


An outright ban on Western plastic exports would help significantly, according to professor Peter Dobson of Oxford University. He told BBC it would "encourage the development of technologies to recycle or re-use waste plastic, or to discourage the wide use of plastic."

We know it's possible to curb our plastic addiction. Just this week Greenpeace released a report on what supermarkets could look like if they ditched single-use plastics, and I've written numerous articles on how to reduce plastic at home. But it requires a major behavioral shift and a willingness on the part of individuals to do things differently. Stories like this one out of Indonesia help because they make us realize that our shopping decisions have far-reaching consequences.