Chil­dren be­ing poi­soned as UK re­cy­cling burns

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - By Ni­cola Smith in Indonesia and Robert Men­dick

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

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