Children being poisoned as UK recycling burns
CHILDREN in Indonesia are being poisoned by exported British household recycling waste which is illicitly burnt on open dumps, an investigation by The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
The remains of packaging – including medical supplies and supermarket wrappers – were found by The Telegraph on tips close to a recycling plant that imports discarded British plastic.
Locals complain that children have been inhaling toxic fumes and are suffering ill health as a consequence.
The plastic waste was collected for recycling on British streets and then dispatched to a village on the outskirts of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, 9,000 miles away. Its journey – involving councils and a complex network of contractors, subcontractors and Chinese waste companies – highlights Britain’s chaotic recycling system.
The Telegraph reporting team found British plastic waste being burnt on open tips in the village of Pasar Kemis.
The waste included a plastic recycling bag issued by Colchester council in Essex; a medical supply bag manufactured in the UK; and wrappers and recyclable carrier bags from supermarkets including Tesco and Morrisons.
Masrur Masngadi, the chief of the small settlement of Sindang Panon, a few hundred metres from the dump, said the burning rubbish was taking a terrible toll. “Every day it was hard to breathe. There were a lot of victims,” said Mr Masngadi. “Some children were hospitalised with bronchitis.”
‘The vegetation was cleared from empty land and it was replaced by a hill of trash that stank. Especially when it was burnt’
In a tiny hamlet next to charred wasteland in the dusty fields of Sindang Jaya, Indonesia, the sun’s rays are shrouded by an acrid pall and young children are being poisoned by fumes from burning British plastic waste.
The field, one of many unsupervised, unregulated dump sites dotted around industrial plastic recycling facilities in Pasar Kemis village, on the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta, is littered with foreign and local trash. Some will be salvaged and sold by ragpickers, but much will be discarded and incinerated openly.
Strewn among the still smouldering ashes when The Daily Telegraph visited last week were the singed remains of plastic packaging that was once in British supermarkets and household fridges.
A packet of £2 Tesco crumbed ham, the wrapping from British beef sirloin steak, the crumpled outer layer of a Lucozade bottle, their origins revealed by the telltale symbol of a faded Union flag.
The south-east Asian nation of Indonesia held the dubious honour last year of being second only to Malaysia when it comes to importing
British plastic waste, with a sharp rise in imports since China imposed a ban in 2018 on receiving foreign garbage for recycling over environmental concerns.
Packaging export figures show that the trend is continuing. Up to 55,000 tons of paper and 18,000 tons of plastic packaging waste were sent to Indonesia from the UK in the first half of 2019, according to figures from letsrecycle.com. Some of those imports are now creating a devastating impact on humans. Masrur Masngadi, the chief of the small settlement of Sindang Panon, located a few hundred metres from the dump, began to well up when asked about the impact of foreign countries using his community as a dump.
“The vegetation was suddenly cleared from empty land that had once been clean, and it was replaced by hill of trash that stank. Especially when it was burnt,” he said.
During one particularly bad period of burning a month ago, the smoke was even entering villagers’ homes.
“Every day it was hard to breathe. There were a lot of victims. Some of the children were hospitalised with bronchitis and a 35-year-old vegetable seller was sent to hospital because she fainted. They diagnosed her with a respiratory problem,” he claimed, showing the woman’s prescription as evidence.
The nearby dump site was one of many that has sprung up since Mr Masngadi, who owns a mattress shop, moved to the area in 2012, hoping to swap Jakarta’s congestion and smog for healthier country living.
At first, villagers had tried to negotiate with traders to stop the burning but the continuing fires led to angry confrontations. “It almost came to blows,” said Mr Masngadi. “I understand they need to make money but they are poisoning us and making us sick.”
He offered to guide The Telegraph to two more dumping grounds for British and Australian household garbage, hidden among trees down a rutted dust track accessible only by motorbike. “We can hardly handle our own trash. So why do you ask us to handle your trash while you promote a clean and green environment?” he asked.
At another site a short distance away, where British rubbish was sorted by hand into colour-coded categories by a team of ragpickers, a shredded “recycle for Colchester” bag fluttered in the breeze, and a melted Marks and Spencer roast chicken wrapper blew across scorched ground.
A man who worked there candidly admitted that waste was burnt at the unsupervised site every night at 1am. He was not worried about the impact of the fumes on his health, he said.
‘We can hardly handle our own trash. So why do you ask us to handle your trash while you promote yourself as clean and green?’
“The wind blows it in the other direction.”
British waste reaches the dump sites through a long chain of companies, middlemen and what at times seems to be buck-passing in a complicated, and at times opaque, process.
Multiple local sources, including waste pickers, residents and an influential politician, claimed that the waste at the dump sites was the discarded leftovers from recycling operations in the country. There is no simple way to verify such claims but nor is there any clear explanation for why foreign waste, including from the UK, would have ended up in Indonesia.
Official figures, published by Myrecyclingwales, a Welsh government-funded website, found 879 tons of plastic waste had been sent to Indonesia for recycling in 2017-18. Wrexham council, in a response to a Freedom of Information request, said that in 2018-19, it had sent 1,122 tons of plastic bottles and packaging to Indonesia for recycling. The journey is a tortuous one. The waste in Wrexham is collected by Kier Group, a construction and services conglomerate, that then passes it through a chain to other recycling contractors in the UK. They in turn send it to Indonesia in shipping containers.
Kier Group insisted: “We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously and where possible, we look to trade plastics in the UK.”
Other councils that send waste to Indonesia include Mendip District Council in Somerset, which, according to a Freedom of Information request, exported almost 800 tons of plastic waste to Indonesia in 2018-19. Kier was again responsible for its kerbside collection.
Colchester council had no idea how a recycling bag from the town found its way to the debris – the council has no knowledge of any contracts with Indonesian recyclers and begun an audit of its contractors.
Yuyun Ismawati, a senior adviser to the Nexus3/balifokus Foundation, an NGO campaigning against environmental pollution in Indonesia, said British consumers were not being given the right information about recycling.
“The Government should inform people clearly what kind of packaging is recyclable and what kind is not,” she said.
But the UK and other Western countries had to learn to dispose of their own waste instead of passing it off to Indonesia, she said.
Ms Ismawati added: “We generate nine million tons of plastic every year so why on earth do we want to import 300,000 tons?
“The UK prefers to support their traders or recyclers to send it away instead of dealing with it by themselves.”
The problem in Pasar Kemis appears to lie with lower quality leftover plastic which cannot be processed.
This is, according to villagers, passed on to another local company, which is then transferred to Haetomi, a 35-year-old descendant of a powerful local family, who is also running in forthcoming rural elections.
Haetomi, who only uses one name, then farms the waste out to village traders, known as “collectors”, who take their haul to unregulated dump sites to salvage what they can.
Destitute ragpickers also sift through the garbage in the hope of finding valuables or to sell some
‘I am looking for a place to process the unused waste but I have not found anywhere. Collectors are digging holes to put it in so it won’t be smelly’
plastic to earn a meagre daily wage.
In Haetomi’s eyes, he is doing his community a favour by providing much-needed employment. “I take the waste because the level of joblessness is high,” he told The Telegraph. “The plastic waste is improving the wealth of the village.”
But he acknowledged that burning the plastic was unacceptable and said he had cracked down on the practice five to six months ago.
“I told them [collectors] if you don’t obey what I say, I will stop supplying you,” he said.
Haetomi admitted that supervision was lax and he had not personally supervised whether the burning had stopped. “I’ll go myself [next week] to check it,” he promised.
He added that he did not have an adequate solution to dispose of the unusable garbage.
“I am looking for a place to process the unused waste but I haven’t found anywhere yet,” he said. “For the time being, the collectors are digging holes to put the trash in so that it won’t be smelly.”
Haetomi and dump workers said they had not received supplies for at least a month, amid rumours of containers of recyclable plastic being blocked by customs authorities. Some expressed desperation about their drop in income.
But while locals know who they believe are responsible for the plastic waste mountains, it is difficult to apportion the blame. What is clear is large amounts of British waste have turned up 9,000 miles away on dumping grounds in a village outside Jakarta. The smell of burning plastic hangs in the air. It is the stench of a recycling system that isn’t working.
Residents in villages near Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, have developed respiratory conditions and wear masks to protect them from plastic fumes, above. Below and left, the dump sites are filled with plastic waste from Britain