Paying for the bus with plastic bottles to solve the Regional Waste Crisis

The world’s four largest contributors of plastic waste in the world’s oceans are all Asian nations, three of which are from ASEAN.

Zoe Croucher

Indonesia is currently second only to China in terms of the quantity of plastic waste that it dumps into the world’s oceans with studies estimating that 3.22 million metric tons of plastic waste is dumped into the oceans surrounding Indonesia annually.

Much of this waste crisis can be attributed to the lack of education and awareness of the damaging effects that plastic has on the environment. The lack of waste awareness and management have put four of Indonesia’s rivers and seven in total from ASEAN amongst the top 20 most polluted rivers in the entire world. This leads to more than just environmental issues as rivers are choked, polluting local sources of food and water and often leading to severe flooding.

As the world shifts towards increased awareness of environmental and sustainability issues, most governments are officially acknowledging their contributions to the worsening global environment. Indonesia is lagging behind, an option that should not be available to a country with a population now exceeding 260 million people. Globally, over 60 countries have now taken-action to either ban or reduce the use of plastic, including Australia where single-use plastic bags are now banned in 6 states and territories. The sheer population size in Indonesia is enough to ensure that even small changes can have large and lasting impacts. As of 2015, 69 percent of Indonesia’s waste goes into landfill.

With a population of almost 2.5 million people and an economic growth rate consistently over 6% (considerably higher than the national rate), it seems hard to believe that many Australians have never even heard of Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya. Yet Surabaya is arguably Indonesia’s most active city in the fight against Indonesia’s waste crisis. 

In 2017 alone, Surabaya won four separate national level environmental awards. As a city, Surabaya is finding innovative ways to establish itself as Indonesia’s eco-friendly city. To add to Surabaya’s long list of accolades it was recently ranked first on the 2018 ‘Indonesia’s Smart City Index’ by Kompas Research and Development Centre.

A rubbish collector in Babakan, West Java. Photo by Ikhlasul Amal on Flikr.

The presence of these ‘smart cities’ in ASEAN has become much more prevalent in recent years and is an initiative that is strongly supported by the Australian Government, specifically through Innovation Xchange. Australia’s support is focused on creating and developing cities that are smart and sustainable and over the next five years, the Australian Government will be providing education, training, technical assistance and support for innovation. This will all be done while building on ASEAN’s own efforts.

In the 2018 ‘Smart City Index’ by Kompas Research and Development Center, Surabaya took first place in the metropolitan category which is measured by six indicators when assessing the country’s cities for the index, namely the condition of the people, quality of life, economy, mobility, governance and the environment. The use of six indicators in allocating this award demonstrates how extensive the term ‘smart city’ can be. Each country, organisation and many individuals have a different perception of what it means to be a ‘smart city’, yet Surabaya has proven itself on all accounts.

One of Surabaya’s most innovative waste management efforts is the ‘Plastic to Ride’ initiative, the first of its kind in Indonesia. On all Surabayan public buses citizens are now able to pay their fare with plastic cups and bottles. A two hour bus ticket costs 10 plastic cups or five plastic bottles. The government has also set itself an extremely ambitious target of becoming a plastic free city by 2020. In a city that estimates that approximately 15 percent of its daily waste is plastic, it is important that initiatives such as this are directly combating the issue of environmental damage and plastic waste, but also indirectly educating its citizens on the issue, resulting in an exponential decrease in the volume of plastic used in the city. After collection the labels and bottle caps are removed and the bottles auctioned off to recycling companies. These funds are used to finance public transport in the city. Not only is this initiative the first of its kind in Indonesia, but it is a completely self-sustaining one that does not solely rely on available government funding.

Surabaya’s environmental initiatives are unarguably admirable, but for Indonesia to challenge its waste crisis other cities need to follow suit. With Indonesia’s government setting the current target to reduce plastic waste by 70 percent by 2025 and US$1 billion being contributed annually to the effort, steps are being taken to tackle this crisis. But this is an ambitious target to say the least, considering that in 2016 Indonesia attempted to reduce plastic use by introducing a US$0.02 tax on single-use plastic bags which was quickly challenged by the country’s retailers’ association who stopped charging for plastic bags on the basis of lack of legal grounds.

Waste management is a critical area where Smart Cities engagement with partners could see great benefits for ASEAN nations.

As Indonesia continually climbs the rankings of global economy size, it will be interesting to see how high economic growth can assist the nation in dealing with its waste crisis.

Of course, it is not alone in facing this challenge. The negative effects of plastic waste on marine biodiversity, ecosystems, animal well-being, fisheries, maritime transport, recreation and tourism, local societies and economies are being felt by all ASEAN nations.

ASEAN is highly concerned by this issue and convened a Statement on Combating Marine Plastic Debris at last year’s East Asia Summit. The statement recognised the urgent need for strengthening knowledge of the levels and effects of microplastics and nanoplastics on marine ecosystems, seafood and human health.

As agreed in previous statements, ASEAN needs to “promote cooperation on combating marine plastic pollution to effectively establish and implement a coherent and coordinated regional approach focussed on prevention and management of waste and litter and promotion of investments in waste management infrastructure.”

The seas and oceans connect our region and are the conduits of regional growth and prosperity. But they are also the sinks of regional pollution, both in material, chemical and nutrient waste. A lot is at stake, and ASEAN and its partners need to play an urgent and concerted role in reducing pollution on land and in our waters.


Zoe is passionate about the Australia-Asean relationship (especially Indonesia) and hopes that an increased understanding of each others cultures will increase trade and investment opportunities across the region.

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