Indonesia Lets Plastic Burning Continue Despite Warning on Toxins

FILE -- Black smoke, caused by burning plastic as fuel at a tofu factory, is seen in Tropodo, Indonesia, on Nov. 2, 2019. The Indonesian government, stung by a report that found burning plastic for fuel is poisoning residents in an East Java village, is allowing the illegal burning to continue while it challenges the environmental study. (Ulet Ifansasti/The New York Times)

Richard C. Paddock

c.2019 The New York Times Company


JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Indonesian government, stung by a report that found burning plastic for fuel is poisoning residents in an East Java village, is allowing the illegal burning to continue while it challenges the environmental study.

Tofu makers in the village, Tropodo, who have long burned waste plastic to fuel their kitchen boilers, have seen sales plummet in recent weeks over fears that dioxin, a toxic chemical, produced from the fires is contaminating their tofu.

Rather than enforce a ban on the burning of waste plastic, much of which came until recently from the United States, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry appointed a panel of Indonesian experts to counter the report released last month by Indonesian and international environmental groups.

At a news conference, officials said the Tropodo test was flawed because it relied on testing dioxin levels in chicken eggs. Eggs are commonly used for testing contamination because chickens effectively sample the soil as they forage and toxins accumulate in their eggs.

“Chickens are smart,” said one government expert, Mochamad Lazuardi, a professor of veterinary medicine at Airlangga University in the city of Surabaya. “They will not eat something hazardous.”

Indonesia prohibits the open burning of waste, but the law is widely flouted by residents and garbage dump operators alike who commonly burn plastic along with other trash.

Indonesian officials have neglected environmental concerns for the sake of economic development, and one result has been widespread contamination by toxic chemicals such as dioxin, mercury and lead.

Dioxin is one of the most hazardous known chemicals and can cause cancer, birth defects and Parkinson’s disease.

Testing by the environmental groups found one sample in Tropodo that contained the second-highest level of dioxin ever found in Asia.

The Tropodo dioxin study was conducted by four environmental groups: Ecoton and the Nexus3 Foundation, based in Indonesia; Arnika, based in Prague; and the International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN, a global network dedicated to eliminating toxic pollutants.

Samples they collected in Tropodo and the nearby village of Bangun, where plastic waste is sorted and burned, were tested at laboratories in three European countries.

The environment ministry officials and three Indonesian university professors who will conduct the government study challenged the validity of the original test and questioned whether the egg samples were cracked and contaminated externally.

The study’s authors stood by their findings. They said none of the egg samples were cracked or tainted and encouraged the government to put an end to plastic burning as soon as possible.

“It would be prudent to halt plastic burning, as our data indicates that more plastic burning will result in more dioxin formation and pollution,” the study’s authors said in a statement.

But one government official indicated that a ban on burning plastic would not be enforced until it was clear how it would affect the local economy.

“It is clear that open burning is not allowed,” said Novrizal Tahar, director of waste management at the environment ministry. “But we need to conduct a social economy study in Tropodo.”

Some of the plastic trash burned by the tofu makers came from the United States and other countries, where it was initially intended for recycling but was improperly shipped to Indonesia as paper waste.

In an effort to reduce the amount of plastic being burned, Novrizal said Indonesia has sent 883 containers of foreign waste back to their countries of origin.

Environmentalists say that the government’s handling of toxic pollution in Tropodo is a troublesome sign given its plans to build a dozen waste-to-energy incinerators in major cities around the country.

Four of the incinerators would be in greater Jakarta, already one of the world’s most polluted cities.

Under the government’s plan, the amount of dioxin produced by the incinerators would be monitored once every five years, compared to the European standard of twice a year.

Critics of the plan said it would increase air pollution and create large amounts of ash containing dioxin and other toxic chemicals.

“Operating an incinerator without dioxin monitoring is like driving with your eyes closed,” said the Tropodo study authors.