Indonesian 12yo activist tells Scott Morrison to take back Australia’s waste

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Non-recyclable waste exported to Indonesia often turns into cheap sources of fuel, which is hazardous for health.

A 12-year-old Indonesian activist has called on Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to halt his country’s exports of waste paper and plastics to her home province. 

Key points: 

  • The activist has penned letters to Western leaders urging them to stop exporting waste
  • She says waste is contributing to the death of marine life and is hazardous to local’s health
  • In 2018, Australia exported 52,000 tonnes of waste to East Java alone

Aeshninna (Nina) Azzahra from Gresik, East Java, made the request in an open letter to the PM which was delivered personally to the Australian embassy in Jakarta yesterday evening. 

The letter notes Ms Azzahra’s dismay at the ecological and health impacts of foreign waste in Indonesia, and details the direct impacts of the export trade on villages in her region. 

“I feel so sad to know that my city become the dump sites for plastic wastes from developed countries,” Ms Azzahra wrote. 

Aeshninna Azzahra holds a megaphone.

She said plastic scraps she came across carried labels whose origins lay in Canada, Australia, the US and UK, among other developed nations. 

“Please keep Australian wastes in Australia and do not send non-recyclable waste to Indonesia, that will add more plastic waste problems in my country,” she told Mr Morrison. 

“Stop exporting waste paper mix with plastics scraps to East Java and Indonesia. Please take back your trash from Indonesia.” 

Indonesia imported 283,000 tonnes of waste in 2018

A child on a bike with a big pile of rubbish in the background.

Many rich countries export both non-recyclable and recyclable waste to poorer nations which are tasked with the often hazardous work of recycling or destroying it. 

China was previously the world leader in the trade, but since Beijing imposed a waste import ban in July 2017, millions of kilograms of waste from Australia and other developed nations have ended up in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

A smiling girl wearing hijab and holding a letter stands in front of a sign saying Australian Embassy in English and Bahasa.

In 2018, Australia exported 52,000 tonnes of waste to Indonesia’s East Java province alone, a 250 per cent increase from 2014.

Ms Azzahra told the ABC that during her trips to East Java’s rubbish fields, waste with Australian labels was the most common she found after US-labelled rubbish.

The Prime Minister’s office told the ABC in a statement the Australian Government would phase in a ban on waste plastic, glass and paper exports starting from July.

Letter to Scott Morrison

“Just like Nina, our Government thinks tackling waste is a key priority because it’s an important issue for our environment at home and across the region we live in,” the statement said.

The spokesperson also said the Government would work with industries to phase out single-use plastic packaging and harmful microbeads. 

“We back Indonesia’s plan to cut marine debris by 20 per cent and waste by 30 per cent and we’re partnering with them to share our knowledge and what our two countries have learned.”

Reuters estimates Indonesia’s overall waste imports climbed by 141 per cent to reach 283,000 tonnes in 2018 — equivalent to about 123 average-sized white rhinoceroses. 

Last year, Indonesian environment activist group Ecoton accused Australian companies of “smuggling” huge amounts of plastic and waste paper supposedly sent for recycling.

Poorer populations in provinces such as East Java turn to waste processing in order to find paid work or generate employment in areas typically bereft of consistent well-paid employment. 

Eko Wahyudi, a waste-processing business owner, told the Los Angeles Times he once had 20 people employed sorting waste, paying them about $US3.50 per day ($5.10). 

In Indonesia, the minimum wage is set per province, which for East Java is set at $US4.07 per day in 2020. 

Non-recyclable waste, such as plastic scraps, are sold as sources as cheap fuel for the province’s tofu producers. 

A shirtless man making tofu in a steaming tofu factory.

“Waste from the US means jobs here,” Mr Wahudi said. 

“Everyone here depends on this trade — the rich and the poor.” 

Azzahra also tells Morrison to ditch coal

A man walks between huge piles of paper

Ms Azzahra’s message to Mr Morrision follows similar letters addressed to world leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump. 

“Why does Germany send its trash to Indonesia? I want my future to be better. I want Indonesia to be clean,” Ms Azzahra told the German leader. 

In her letters addressed to Mr Morrison and Ms Merkel, the activist detailed the broader ecological impacts in her region. 

To the Australian PM, she said marine animals were already dying due to plastic congestion, while Ms Merkel was told about Ms Azzahra buying a fish filled with plastic in its stomach. 

A man almost burried himself while sorting a pile of garbage.

She told the ABC that it was critical for Australia to curtail its environmental impact, especially given its unprecedented bushfire season. 

“Australia also needs to find a more environmentally friendly fuel, not using coal,” Ms Azzahra said.

To Mr Trump, she said American waste had made Indonesian rivers “very dirty and smelly”. 

“Why do you always export your waste to my country? Why don’t you take care of her own waste?” she asked the President. 

Only one official representative has met with Ms Azzahra in response to her pleas — Germany’s ambassador to Indonesia Peter Schoof, who spoke with the activist earlier this month. 

Ms Azzahra told the ABC she hoped to meet Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Gary Quinlan, but she had so far been unable to secure an audience. 

For now, she hopes Australia heeds her call.

“I really hope Australia [does] not send plastic rubbish to Indonesia, she said. 

“I want Australia to take it back.”

Three girls stand in the street.