The Plastic Tide: Indonesia’s Wave of Waste.

White sand beaches, turquoise waters and simply stunning sunsets. Indonesia is a tropical paradise.

Famous for it’s surf breaks, jaw dropping landscapes and marine biodiversity, this island nation is the world’s largest archipelago, and a honeymooners dream destination.

Boasting 50,331 miles of coastline - the equivalent of Route 66 twenty five times over – it’s no surprise that Indonesia’s 17,000 islands are usually littered with sun-kissed influencers – but right now, instead of tourists and trail-blazers it’s worldclass beaches are plagued by plastic.

Indonesia’s shorelines are drowning in a deluge of single-use plastic. In fact, close to 60 tonnes of waste is washing up on Bali’s famous beaches DAILY!

So why is it, that with the world in lockdown, Bali’s beaches are awash with waste?


Why is this waste washing up in Bali?

Unlike in the US, Indonesia has two primary seasons - the dry season, which runs from April to October, and the monsoon season, from November to March. Now in the peak of the monsoon season, the islands are experiencing heavy rainfall, strong currents, and powerful winds.

The monsoon season prevails across all of Asia, but Indonesia occupies a unique position – it lies where the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean meet – and as a result experiences a unique current known as the Indonesian Throughflow.

The Indonesian Throughflow changes directions seasonally. In the dry season this current is moving away from Bali, taking away with it the flip flops you forgot on the beach, your GoPro you dropped in the ocean and the plastic drinks bottle you left behind.

But, there is no such thing as away – when the rain comes in the monsoon season the flow reverses – and the trash the tide has taken returns to the island with avengence. Dumping 1,500 tonnes of waste onto the shoreline in a single month.


Where is all this waste coming from in the first place?

There are lots of reasons for this pile up. One being population size - Indonesia is the 4th most populous country in the world, with a population of 273 million people – and a density ten times that of Finland or Argentina.

But it’s not just volume of people producing the waste, it’s how it’s managed that’s the problem.

Over 70% of the nation’s plastic waste, an estimated 4.8 million tonnes  is mismanaged;

13% (884,000 tonnes) of the country’s plastic waste is disposed of in poorly managed dumpsites, or  sent to tofu factories and chalk/lime processing plants where it’s burnt as fuel. While around 48% (3.2 million tonnes) of it, an equivalent of 323 Eiffel Towers, is burnt by families and small businesses.

Some 612,000 tonnes of the waste, however - ends up in the ocean. With few secure sites for the litter to be stored, it is pushed into the waterways by runoff and wind.

But this isn’t just a locals problem.

Bali’s beautiful beaches have seen a dramatic increase in the number of tourists visiting; In 2018 38% of all visiting tourists in Indonesia went to Bali - and generated over 3 times the amount of daily waste as residents - a staggering 1.7 kg/day compared to 0.5 kg of waste created by locals. And those 16 million tourists were ultimately responsible for about 13% of the island’s waste.

To put that into perspective, the 612,000 tonnes of waste entering the oceans, the equivalent to 3,221 Blue Whales – makes up 9% of the countries total waste…


So, what is the government doing to tackle the plastic tide?

Right now, organisations such as DLHK Badung and volunteers like @laurainwaterland are cleaning Bali’s beaches daily. Kuta, being the most severely affected.

But despite their herculean efforts the plastic tide will return next year and without long-term action over 720,000 tonnes of plastic waste will leak into the ocean from Indonesia by 2025.

That’s why the nation has joined the Global Plastic Action Partnership and set-up a five-point agenda to reduce plastic waste by 70% in 2025, which includes;

  • Reducing or substituting plastic use to prevent the consumption of 1.1 million tonnes of plastic per year.
  • Redesigning plastic products and packaging with reuse or recycling at heart.
  • Doubling their plastic waste collection from 39% to 80% by 2025
  • Doubling their current recycling capacity to process an additional 975,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year, increasing the recycling rate from 10% to 24%.
  • Building safe waste disposal facilities to manage an additional 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste per year.


What can we do to help?

In the short term we can support organisations like Waste4Change who offer a sorted waste collection service, and the Plastic Bank who pay collectors for bringing in plastics to be recycled.

But plastic tides are starting to appear elsewhere and we cannot recycle our way out of this.

Instead, we can put pressure on the big corporations who are responsible for the bulk of the plastic packaging - Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and Danone being the top 4 – to change their ways and reduce the amount of single-use plastics being pumped into the market – and ultimately the ocean.


Written by Onis Emem



Radically Reducing Plastic Pollution in Indonesia: A Multistakeholder Action Plan National Plastic Action Partnership. (2020). Retrieved 16 January 2021

Plastic Pollution. (2021). Retrieved 16 January 2021

Plastic Waste Poisons Indonesia’s Food Chain. (2019).

Indonesia threatens to report countries for refusing to take back waste. (2019). Retrieved 16 January 2021

Demanding Corporate Accountability for Plastic Pollution 

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