Where Away Is: Our Research Trip for The Story of Plastic

Our team landed in Surabaya, Indonesia, to meet an activist we met at the #breakfreefromplastic strategy meeting in Bali. Traveling in this region is hectic, and one must factor in incredible amounts of travel time to deal with traffic. As such, our day began at 4:00am to meet our host for thirty hours, Prigi Arisandi. Prigi, Executive Director of Ecoton.org, is a Goldman Prize winner who runs an organization dedicated to protecting people and biodiversity within a 300 kilometer stretch of river that runs through Surabaya. He’s a biologist and fierce river defender.

Our mission is to chase stories for The Story of Plastic, and we heard about Prigi’s work in a breakout strategy meeting in Bali last week. That story, which brought us here, I’ll save for later because Prigi shared so many stories with us.

The truth is, much of what we put in our recycling bin ends up in other countries, and it often isn’t recycled exactly. In fact, most of it isn’t. I think people have a notion of recycling: that it’s done by gnomes and faeries and is some neat and tidy system. This is far from the truth.

Where I live, in an old sailboat in San Francisco Bay, I see container ship after container ship leaving the Port of Oakland bound for who knows where, full of what we throw in our recycle bins. Most plastics we use have very little value, and it’s only in poorer countries, where the labor market is cheap, that this plastic can then be made into another product.

But increasingly, because there is so much plastic waste generated daily, markets for waste (or what the industry calls, ‘scrap plastic’) are underwater, and exports of waste are a race to the bottom. In developed countries, our plastic is shipped to a sorting facility that uses laser light known as optical sorters to separate different types of plastic by type—they also sort paper, metals, and anything else that people throw in a recycle bin. It’s then bailed, and brokers await a buyer. If there is a buyer somewhere else, it’s then shipped. This isn’t one transaction, rather it’s a series of waste traders operating in a dirty, global commodities market where the costs to environment and human health are externalized. The truth is, it’s nearly impossible to figure out where the contents of your recycle bin end up in the world. And often, countries like the U.S., European Union, and the UK try to get rid of waste any way we can.

Paper is valuable, but the optical sorters used to find it sort any two dimensional objects, including plastic, as ‘paper.’ So if plastic is smashed flat, it can either be mistakenly or purposely sandwiched in bails of paper and put on a ship, destination ‘away’ or to ‘someone else’s problem.’

Entering Away

Down the road in a village just outside of Surabaya, we found where ‘one of the aways’ is. Beyond the town limits along the side of the road, surrounded by jungle, rivers and rice fields, there is a paper mill, in which operators make paper from imported paper waste. When the company gets their paper bails, they undo them and take the useful paper and dump the rest on the other side of the road—mixed with low value plastics. Much of the plastic is shredded already, making it suspicious that it ended up in a paper bail by mistake. There, in ‘away,’ 3-5 tonnes of scrap plastic are dumped by the roadside per day, and then an informal sector of recyclers sift through it, looking for anything valuable they can sell to eke out a living. They then sift through the tonnes of worthless plastic (plastic with no monetary value), primarily from the packaging of our everyday Stuff, and then set it alight in open burns. The smell is terrible; the smoke is toxic to human lungs. And these people work amidst the smoke, mouths and noses uncovered, touching burning plastic with their bare hands.

Think about this: if plastic had any real value, why would the companies that package products in plastic let you walk out the store with it without caring if they ever see it again? Each of us is an agent in the ‘away’ chain of custody that ends up here.

The informal waste pickers are hardworking, kind and friendly to visitors interested in their work. As I take pictures of them pulling out film equipment, they smile and wave (probably thinking we’re nuts for being so fascinated with plastic garbage). Children run up and pose, wanting us to shoot their photo. The primarily Muslim work force subscribes to a Koranic mandate to be kind to their fellow human. But how they manage to keep a smile on their faces in a place that you and I would describe as hell, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. This is a resilience we can’t even comprehend in the world of privilege we enjoy in global north countries. Countries where we’re too damn busy to buy food that isn’t packaged and remember to bring a reusable bag.

Bottom line, the more plastic use every day in the global north, the more that will be dumped on the side of the road in the global south villages around the world. In other, invisible people’s homes. It’s just that simple. The plastic Stuff we consume accumulates all over the globe, and it keeps on accumulating because it doesn’t biodegrade in a meaningful timeframe.

Companies like Exxon, Dow, Sabic, and Shell and many others are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in the byproducts of fracking in US, to make the feedstock for plastics (because they’re not making so much money on oil these days). Projections show an over 30 percent increase in plastic production by 2025, roughly half of it going into single-use, no-value plastic packaging. The biggest investments in plastic production facilities, in fact, will result in increased production of hard-to-recycle, low-value stuff.

Last week, China announced to The World Trade Organization that it will no longer take ANY plastic waste; China is trying focus on managing its increasingly higher and higher amounts of domestic plastic waste for recycling. Before, 80 percent of all waste plastic on earth ended up there. Now, it’s going to be a race to the bottom, affecting more and more lives if we as a global community don’t break free from plastic.

Many news reports and recent studies have blamed countries like Indonesia for contributing vast amounts of plastic pollution in the ocean. It’s true, a lot of plastic enters the ocean here, but to fault the Indonesians for being the people who sort through our crap, the people clean up our mess, is not only unjust, it’s insulting. Our ever-growing consumption benefits a very few, creating profit enjoyed by wealthy global north corporation heads. These news reports demean the astonishingly hard work these people do along the sides of roads everywhere.

That plastic they are sorting through? That is our plastic. We must take responsibility and demand transparency from (and payments by) the companies who make plastic. In particular, we must hold them accountable when they push for shipments to, or open new markets in, developing countries. Otherwise, our consumption will literally kill real human beings, nevermind the scare about eating fish that eat plastic. Let’s worry more about the pollution plastic causes at every step of the way, from extraction through to disposal. That’s where we’ll find the frontline communities paying the biggest price.

But it’s certainly not hopeless

One of the key tenets of the Break Free From Plastic movement is source reduction. Reducing our reliance on no-value and low-value plastic greatly improves the lives of waste workers and the economies they create. If workers could be sorting valuable from slightly less valuable plastic, it would be a quantum leap forward from the status quo, which revolves around cheap, worthless materials.

Indeed, in the Break Free From Plastic movement, workers are considered equals in the decisions on how we as a movement work to solve these problems. Experts like Prigi, who truly understand the systems wreaking havoc in their countries, know how to create the solutions. We just need to listen to them. As we continue on our research trip for The Story of Plastic, we are here, not to tell our story, but to listen and amplify their stories.

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