Oceans of Plastic: Fixing Indonesia’s Marine Debris Pollution Laws

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Oceans of Plastic: Fixing Indonesia’s Marine Debris Pollution Laws

How can Indonesia overcome its status as the world’s second-largest contributor to plastic marine pollution?

Oceans of Plastic: Fixing Indonesia’s Marine Debris Pollution Laws

Plastic debris on the east coast of Pulau Bunaken, Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Credit: Flickr/ Fabio Achilli

The world’s oceans are choking on mountains of debris, and Indonesia’s marine environment is one of the worst victims. Indonesia has the dubious honor of being the second biggest marine polluter in the world. What are the prospects for a legal approach to combat this serious problem?

Marine debris comes in various material types: plastic, glass, paper and cardboard, rubber, and clothing. Having said that, plastic debris is one of the most serious environmental issues for the world’s oceans and comprises the majority of floating litter. In 2015, research by Jenna Jamback found that 3.2 million tons of plastic waste polluted Indonesian waters in 2010, making Indonesia the biggest source of plastic marine waste in Southeast Asia and second biggest in the world (China is number one).

Big cities are particular culprits, with Jakarta leading the way. According to the Regional Board for Waste Management (BPLHD), 13 percent of Jakarta’s waste — some 6,000 tons per day — is plastic litter. Other big cities like Denpasar and Palembang generate huge quantities of waste: 10,725 ton per day in Denpasar and 6,500 tons per day in Palembang. Indonesian waters are the victims of this massive plastic pollution, which is causing serious environmental problems.

Marine pollution, particularly from plastic, must be addressed by a clear and comprehensive legal framework. Internationally, a number of major treaties deal with plastic pollution, including UNCLOS 1982, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), and the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (London Convention) 1972. These international frameworks set out broad legal principles for ocean-related issues and establish a general obligation for states to protect and preserve the marine environment.

These international conventions crack down on plastic pollution by requiring states to address land-based sources of pollution as well as pollution from the seabed and ships, and by requesting states work together to address marine environmental issues (for example, in part XII of UNCLOS). MARPOL establishes international regulations to prevent pollution from ships. MARPOL Annex V contains regulations on vessel-borne garbage and its disposal. It sets limit on what may be disposed at sea and imposes a complete ban on the at-sea disposal of plastics. The London Convention contains regulations on the prevention of marine pollution through dumping of wastes and other matter at sea. Although the 1996 Protocol of this Convention revised the list of what may be dumped at sea, plastics have always been a prohibited material.

The Indonesian Government has passed key laws on marine debris pollution including Law No. 32 of 2014 on the Sea, Law No. 32 of 2009 on the Protection and Management of Environment, and Government Regulation (GR) No. 19 of 1999 concerning Control of Marine Pollution/Destruction. The 2014 Law of the Sea is the umbrella law for marine-related undertakings. Article 55 of the law specifies that central and regional governments shall establish a system for the mitigation and management of marine pollution and destruction. Article 56 makes the government responsible for protecting and conserving the marine environment through the prevention, reduction, and management of ocean pollution.

Like the 2014 Law of the Sea, the 2009 Environmental Law is an umbrella legal framework, and does not specifically address marine debris pollution or plastic litter. Instead, it outlines general principles pertaining to environmental protection and management. Article 13 establishes that control over the environmental pollution and/or damage shall include prevention, mitigation, and restoration. In preventing marine pollution or damage, the government should utilize instruments such as environmental strategic studies, environmental impact assessments (EIAs), and the application of standard criteria for environmental damage. With respect to dumping, Article 60 makes it unlawful to dump waste and/or materials into the environment, without a permit. The 2009 Environmental Law also establishes a general prohibition against committing actions causing environmental pollution and/or damage. These prohibitions are reinforced by criminal sanctions in articles 97-120 for individual and corporations.

In addition, the 1999 Marine Pollution Control Regulation prohibits anyone from taking any action that causes marine environmental pollution (article 9). Before dumping waste into the sea, a permit must be obtained from the Minister for Environmental Affairs (article 18).

Where do these laws and regulations leave Indonesia’s marine environment? Although Indonesia has the two umbrella laws of 2014 and 2009, currently there are no national regulations that contain policies and concrete measures to prevent plastic pollution. Specific regulations for the protection of the marine environment from marine debris pollution, such as strict regulations on plastic bag and waste management in coastal areas, are undoubtedly required.

The Indonesian legal framework lacks progressive approaches to marine debris pollution. The government should consider issuing a regulation on the production and use of land-based materials that potentially cause marine litter. Such a regulation should contain a prohibition on the manufacture of plastic bags, and a policy to disincentive their use in shops. The UN Environment Program’s recent report on “Marine Litter Legislation” recommended steps such as prohibiting plastic bags, cups, and foam products, setting standards for bag thickness, applying taxes and other levies, and establishing cigarette-free beaches.

To make these legal changes a success, national and local governments need to get involved in establishing better waste transportation systems. This will be crucial to ensure that transporters complete their designated route with a full load of waste. Authorities should consistently enforce regulations including plastic bag bans and fines for illegal dumping.

Major changes will be needed to alter Indonesia’s status as the world’s second biggest plastic polluter. Updated regulations, a prohibition on plastic bags, and enforcement of dumping laws are all important elements, and will require cross-sector collaborations among governments, NGOs, and the business sector in order to cut down on plastic waste and clean up our environment.

Muhammad Taufan is a PhD candidate at Flinders University’s School of Law, South Australia.