How Indonesia can create a fantastic life without plastic

It might be hard for us to dream of a world without plastic. Life has become so convenient since its introduction. When we’re hungry, we can spontaneously buy food as we pass a supermarket or restaurant on our way home because there will be a plastic bag to help us. When we’re thirsty, we can pop into a mini market to buy a drink in a plastic bottle. Plastics, especially plastic bags, have become an integral part of modern life.

We usually use plastic bags to move multiple goods from one place to the other. Not only making them easier to carry around, but also protecting the contents from unwanted contaminants in the environment. Plastic bags are most in demand when used for food, groceries and other daily needs. And best of all, they are usually free.

pageIn Indonesia, people use plastic bags for nearly everything, from shopping to laundry.Image taken from herehere, and here.

Aside from the convenience, plastic is also notorious for its harmful impact on health and the environment. Plastic bags block drains, they help cause respiratory illness when neighbours burn them in street rubbish, they cause water pollution, and they take up land for garbage disposal. You can walk outside almost any house or office in Indonesia and it will be very easy to spot plastic waste. And our rubbish has global impact – there is a island in the Pacific Ocean made up mostly of plastic, estimated to be between 700,000 to 15 million square kilometers in size. It is called the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. Some plastics retain their solid form and form the mass of the island. Others turn into microplastics and float, creating big soup in the ocean like an oil slick. The existence of the Garbage Patch is a global responsibility. Nevertheless, Indonesia needs to do more because it is the second biggest marine polluter, after China.

5cf3f96e-8bef-404a-860b-e9e65b750c84Picture taken from here.

In February 2016, the Ministry for the Environment and Forestry launched a trial policy in some cities to reduce plastic bag usage. Plastic bags in supermarkets and convenience stores in some cities were no longer free. Customers had to pay IDR200 (US 1c) for every plastic bag they received from the store.

Did it work? After only three months, the government reported a significant decrease in the use of plastic bags. The rate of decrease varied between cities from 25 to 80 per cent (Kompas), however many cities dropped out of the program due to the policies of local governments. Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘??Ahok’? Tjahaja declared a preference for retailers to use biodegradable plastic bags rather than charging customers for every plastic bag they use.

Unfortunately for the Governor, plastic bags are nearly impossible to be 100 per cent broken down, even biodegradable ones. A study from the Scrips Institution of Oceanography in the U.S. shows that 5 to 10 per cent of fish within the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch contain small pieces of plastic (Garbage Patch Facts). Biodegradable plastic bags are therefore ineffective – and they are more expensive too. So what does work?

Prevention is effective – reducing the amount of waste through behavior change. And there are a two main approaches: increase the barriers to stop the current behavior, or boost the benefits of the desired behavior. For example, charging IDR200 for each plastic bag creates an economic barrier. Increasing cost is effective, the World Bank reports that raising the price of cigarettes by 10% worldwide would cause about 42 million of smokers to quit. Some say the plastic bag charge is too low, with Surakarta Mayor FX Hadi Rudyatmo saying the bags should be ten times the price to make people change their behavior. But economic barriers are not enough on their own. We need to be more creative by boosting the benefits for those who bring their own shopping bag.

One recent example is the #ayoloveearth campaign from Tempo Scan, an Indonesian pharmaceutical, consumer and cosmetic products company. Indonesians love shopping. So this campaign encourages people to use Tempo Scan shopping bags instead of plastic bags. Everybody who uses the Tempo Scan bag will receive discounts on Tempo Scan’s products. Besides the economic benefits, using a Tempo Scan shopping bag also provides a social benefit as the person is perceived as pro-environment. Good social marketing programs provide benefits valued by the people they aim to engage.

Plastics have become an integral part of modern life because of the benefits they bring. But for real impact, the Indonesian government should not just charge for each plastic bag or force retailers to use biodegradable plastic. The government needs to engage more stakeholders and create a more comprehensive movement based on increasing the personal and social benefits to behavior change. Only then will we be able to live a fantastic life without plastic.

Share your opinion with us: which is more effective to change behavior – building barriers or boosting benefits? What will work in Indonesia?

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Nicholas Goodwin

Behaviour change and international development guy.

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