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2,000 truckloads of plastic is dumped into the ocean every day

A local fisherman performs maintenance on his boat while surrounded by trash washed up on Loji Beach in West Java, Indonesia

Posted on April 22, 2024

The western coast of Java in Indonesia is popular with surfers for its world-famous breaks. There’s a majestic underwater world to explore, too. But it’s impossible to surf or snorkel without running into plastic water bottles, single-use cups and food wrappers.

The garbage sometimes forms islands in the sea, and much of it washes ashore, accumulating as mountains on the beach.

The world produces around 400 million metric tons of plastic waste each year. Every day, 2,000 truckloads of it is dumped into the ocean, rivers and lakes.

A team of women haul in fishing nets on Java’s western coast.

Despite global efforts to give plastic products longer lives, only 9% of them are actually recycled. Most plastic waste goes into landfills or is shipped to places like Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations, many of which are already drowning in their own plastic pollution.

Clearing beaches of litter in Indonesia is no small task. The country is the world’s second-biggest producer of plastic waste. As the world’s longest archipelago — stretching over the same distance as London to New York — Indonesia has a vast coastline and three times the amount of sea surface area than land, making fishing an industry that 12 million people rely on.

Without adequate state services to keep the beaches clear of litter, fishing communities are on the front lines of the clean-up.

Loji Beach, on the Indonesian island of Java, is one of the most contaminated in the country.

Marsinah collects plastic on Loji Beach to try and sell it to informal recycling centers.

Plastic bottle labels are accumulated in a recycling center in Bangkok, Thailand.

Loji Beach, nestled in a bay in West Java, is especially prone to plastic pile-ups. Ocean currents sweep the waste into the bay where it gets trapped in and ends up on the sand.

“There’s no real community living here. There’s not a proper road to the beach, so there’s no local people cleaning it up properly, like you see in other parts of the country,” said Edu Ponces, a Barcelona-based photographer. “Loji Beach is telling us something: if we decide not to do more about plastic waste, this is what the sea will give back to us.”

Marsinah is an Indonesian woman who collects some of the plastic waste on Loji Beach. She then tries to sell it to informal recycling centers — it’s the only way for she’s been able to earn an income since her husband died. Sometimes the local government buys the waste she and others collect, even if there’s no use for it, just to provide a livelihood.

Fishermen separate fish from plastic waste collected in their nets. The separation of plastic and the sorting of the catch is an increasingly laborious task as the amount of waste increases

Farther down the Java coast at Pangadaran Beach, Rahmat Hidayat has an important job: he goes out on the boat to cast the nets, which will then be collected by his colleagues. He says they are catching fewer fish than they used to, and there’s an increase in plastic in their haul.

He and his fellow fishermen spend hours separating the plastic and fish after a catch. Increasingly, plastics and small microplastics are making their way into the food chain as fish come into regular contact with ocean plastic waste.

To stop this vicious cycle, some traditional fishing villages are turning to other means for their catch.

A man feeds fish at a floating fish farm in Pangadaran Bay. Some fishing communities are turning to farming, where the fish are isolated from the rest of the sea with nets to limit their contact with plastic pollution.

Plastic waste accumulates on the shore at Loji Beach.

Fisherman Rahmat Hidayat says there are fewer fish and more plastic in his hauls.

Indonesia is one of several Southeast Asia nations that have tightened their rules for plastic waste imports as they try to prevent becoming plastic dumping grounds for countries like China, the US and EU nations. Indonesia will only allow shipments of products that are fully recyclable, but its neighbor to the north, Thailand, has gone further: It is banning all incoming plastic waste shipments starting in 2025.

At the same time, the European Union will ban the export of plastic waste to developing countries by 2026. Ironically, that has led to an uptick in plastic waste exports from the EU to Southeast Asia, as European companies rush to offload their waste ahead of the ban’s start date.

Ponces, the photographer, says that seeing piles of plastic at Bangkok’s recycling centers left a deep impression on him, and reinforced how enormous this global problem is.

A man works amid a pile of plastic bottles prepared for recycling at one of Bangkok’s informal recycling centers.

“I finished taking these photos and went to the convenience store and bought a sandwich packed in plastic, and I realized I was also part of the problem. We all need to change this,” he says.

“The ocean has become the main battle zone for the climate and environmental crisis. We’ve had every day for more than a year breaking daily heat record temperatures in the seas. And the acidification is changing so many things in the world’s oceans. There is so much death in the ocean but we don’t see it — it’s all happening under water,” he says.

“But the plastics problem washes up on the shore and it’s just one way of showing people what’s happening in our seas.”

A traditional fish farm floats in Pangandaran Bay.


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