Tackling Single Use Plastic in Indonesia from the Consumer Perspective

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Tackling Single Use Plastic in Indonesia from the Consumer Perspective

December 08, 2020 | Blog | By Ester Margaretha

Take a look at your surroundings. Do you see any plastic straws, cups, bottles, or bags? Perhaps, some of us are holding one or two of them while reading this right now. How many of them do you find in your school, office, café, and/or your home? They are ubiquitous and perceived as indispensable. While some stores encourage the 'bring your own bag' movement, some of us still ask for double plastic bags to ensure that they are strong enough to carry our purchases. This creates a never-ending demand from consumers to have cheap, durable, lightweight packaging. Surprisingly, one-third of worldwide plastic production is for packaging. The convenience to use single-use plastic made from polymers or non-biodegradable makes us take it for granted – posing a serious environmental challenge. And so, what can we do?

As the main contributor to global ocean pollution – we rank in second place for this – Indonesia astonishingly produces 3.2 million tons of mismanaged plastic waste a year with about 40% of it ending up in the ocean. One study found that that 90% of people are aware of some or many of the adverse effects of single-use plastics. And yet devastating news over the past years seems not to be strong enough to provoke massive change. You may be familiar with images of a plastic straw stuck in a turtle’s nose, of a whale found dead with 1,000 plastic items in its gut, or data that plastics cover one-third of coral reefsbut one in four Indonesians (27%) uses a plastic straw daily

While plastic items might outnumber fish in Indonesia by 2030, our shock at plastic waste is fleeting, and then we go back to ‘business as usual’. Not to mention key factors influencing this plastic consumption behaviour. These include sociodemographic variables in converting awareness to action; environmental attitudes on social desirability; convenience compared to existing alternatives in the area; diffusion of responsibility between consumers, policy makers, and business; social factors; and habits. Notably, habit plays a significant role in shaping this consumer consumption of single-use plastic. Our neighbour, Malaysia, conducted a study on a plastic-free-day-campaign during which 60% of the respondents forgot to bring their own bags during the campaign itself. This implies that even though we are aware of the problem and willing to reduce our plastic consumption, we partly fail as we are not able to apply new habits. But why focus on consumers? There are many ways to curb plastic waste from producing less, better managing the waste, and policy solutions. Why not focus on these instead? 

Indeed, there have been notable efforts, national and local, in the context of policy reform and grassroots action. Per July 2019, the Government of Indonesia has issued the excise of plastic bags worth Rp 200 (USD 0.01) for petroleum-base bags and Rp 450-500 for customers if they still want to use plastics. By 2025, the national government targets to reduce plastic waste by 70%

Bali – an interesting regional example – generates approximately 320,000 tons of plastic per year. The Governor of Bali took strong steps by issuing a regulation to ban single-use plastic on the island as of June 2019. This was the result of countless advocacy and mobilization efforts. Business has taken action, such as Avani Ecos promotion of plastic alternatives made from cassava starch. Community responses include Bali Beach Clean-Up, as part of local CSR efforts, and Bye-Bye Plastic Bags, a now global campaign initiated by two teenage girls on the island. 

But above all, when we as consumers – the demand side – remain resistant, it is difficult to make a significant change. Our plastic footprint – the total amount of plastic used and discarded by a single individual – is worthy of our immediate attention. The average plastic consumption of individuals in Indonesia is around 21-22 kilograms per year while the plastic recycling rate was only 11%. Therefore, one person’s action can undeniably make a difference. When individuals collaborate to promote community action to curb single-use plastic pollution, imagine how impactful this could be. 

For our part, Saraswati is piloting an initiative to promote community awareness and action to eliminate the use of single-use plastics through a plastic-free communities campaign. This eight-month initiative started this month and is taking place in Nyambu Village, Bali with the support of Diageo. While the ecosystem to support the effort has been built such as supportive government regulation, initial awareness-raising through a local ecotourism programme with other partners, and local social enterprises willingly to collaborate—we acknowledge the effort will depend on personal behaviour and incentives to make real change. Ultimately it is a question of demand and supply and we hope to contribute to a significant reduction in the demand for single use plastics.  

It definitely takes a process to achieve zero waste for single-use plastics. Just like when I started my effort in college, taking baby steps to reduce my use of plastic straws. There were times when I forgot to ask not to be given a plastic straw. I am still struggling to make a little change day by day, but this is the least that I can do and in my control. 

Inevitably, we will fail, forget and compromise. But it is about the commitment to keep going, to learn from mistakes, to keep improving, and adopt ‘new habits’. In the end, it comes down to us, both as individuals and members of local communities be those villages, schools, companies or others to take action. 

If you are interested to take action, we welcome you to join our plastic-free communities campaign.


Ester Margaretha is Assistant Project Manager at Saraswati. She leads the implementation of an innovative and private-sector funded plastic-free communities initiative and supports human-centered design and technology support for projects on gender empowerment and accessible technology for people with disabilities.