In Depth

‘City of smoke’: how the West is poisoning Indonesia’s food chain

The Southeast Asian nation is burning mountains of imported plastic waste

Indonesia’s finely balanced food chain is being poisoned by the burning of plastic waste shipped from Western countries.

According to a report released this week by IPEN (the International Pollutants Elimination Network), tests on chicken eggs in an East Java village called Tropodo found levels of dioxins that were 70 times those allowed under European safety standards.

The toxic chemicals are “known to cause cancer, birth defects and Parkinson’s disease”, says The New York Times

A local resident told the BBC that Tropodo was known locally as the “city of smoke”.

According to Indonesia’s statistics agency, imports of potentially deadly plastic waste rose by 141% to 283,000 tonnes in 2018. The waste is “primarily from countries such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, the UK and the US”, says the BBC. 

The dramatic increase came after China banned the import of waste to its mainland, prompting Western nations to look for dumping grounds elsewhere.

Although some local companies profit by accepting the shipments, much of the plastic is unwanted, low-grade material. Much of it is burned as fuel for tofu-producing kitchens or to simply get rid of it - but “the smoke and ash produced by the burning plastic has far-reaching and toxic consequences”, says the New York Times.

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The paper adds that things may soon change as legislation halting the overwhelming influx of plastic is slowly being implemented.

Reuters reports that earlier this year, Indonesian customs officers began uncovering imports of scrap mixed with other waste, such as rubber and nappies, and have begun shipping them back to their home countries.

But the problem is not yet fixed. Environmental news site Mongabay reports that between July and August 2019, Indonesia denied entry for 58 containers exported from the US, with Indonesian authorities claiming they repatriated the containers full of waste to the country of origin.

“But only 12 of those containers eventually returned to the US,” the site says. “The rest appeared to have been sent to India, Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, the Netherlands, Canada and South Korea between August and October.”

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