Children in Indonesia are being poisoned by British household recycling waste sent to the Asian country where it is illicitly burnt on open dumps, a Telegraph investigation can disclose.
The Telegraph found remains of packaging – including medical supplies and supermarket wrappers – on tips close to a recycling plant that imports containers of discarded British plastic.
Locals have complained that children have been breathing in toxic fumes and 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 the Indonesian capital 9,000 miles away.
The journey taken by the waste – that involves councils and a complex network of contractors, sub-contractors and Chinese waste companies – highlights the chaos of Britain’s recycling system.
The investigation reinforces the demands made by The Telegraph’s Zero Waste campaign for central and local government to do more to improve recycling rates.
The Telegraph’s reporting team found the British plastic waste being burnt on open tips in the village of Pasar Kemis. It suggests that the well-intentioned drive by the UK to recycle more and more household waste is creating a dangerous knock-on effect.
One local authority said it was impossible to account for every piece of waste sent abroad for recycling.
The British waste included a plastic recycling bag issued to residents by Colchester council in Essex; a plastic medical supply bag manufactured in the UK; and wrappers and recyclable carrier bags from a number of supermarkets including Tesco and Morrisons.
The waste was found close to two Indonesian recycling plants, one which processes waste and another which turns it into plastic pellets.
Both firms – with almost identical names and marketing headquarters in China – have insisted they are not responsible for the discarded British waste.
As much as 55,000 tonnes of paper and 18,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste were sent to Indonesia from the UK in the first half of 2019, according to letsrecycle.com, which analysed packaging export figures.
Colchester council said it would investigate how its own recycling bag ended up on the tip in Indonesia. The local authority uses waste contractors regulated by the Environment Agency.
A council spokesman said: “We would never condone this [our waste being found in Indonesia]. But in reality we can never check every piece of plastic and where it goes.” Masrur Masngadi, the chief of the small settlement of Sindang Panon, located 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 of the children were hospitalised with bronchitis.”
In a tiny hamlet next to charred wasteland in the dusty fields of Sindang Jaya, Indonesia, the sun’s rays are muted by an acrid pall and young children are being poisoned by fumes from burning British plastic waste.
The field, one of many unsupervised, unregulated dumpsites 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 openly incinerated.
Strewn among the still smouldering ashes when the Telegraph visited last week were the singed remains of plastic packaging that was once in British supermarkets and household fridges.
A Tesco £2 packet of crumbled 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 Jack.
The Southeast 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 slapped 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 tonnes of paper and 18,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste were sent to Indonesia from the UK in the first half of 2019, reported letsrecycle.com, citing packaging export figures. Some of those imports are now creating a devastating human toll.
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 trash can.
“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 burned,” 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 dumpsite was one of many that had 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 later 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 and you dump your things here?” 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.
Nding, who worked there, candidly admitted that waste was burned at the unsupervised site every night at 1am. He was not worried about the impact of the fumes on his health, he said. “The wind blows it in the other direction.”
British waste reaches the dumpsites 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 on the dumpsites 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 tonnes 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 tonnes of plastic bottles and packaging collected by the local authority 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 the waste 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.”
Nding, a former factory worker, now runs a plastic waste dump in outer Jakarta CREDIT: GRAHAM CROUCH/THE TELEGRAPH
Other councils that send waste to Indonesia include Mendip District Council in Somerset, which according to a freedom of information request, exported almost 800 tonnes of plastic waste to Indonesia in 2018/19.
Kier was again responsible for its kerbside collection. A recycling bag from Colchester council was also found amid the debris. Colchester council had no idea how it arrived there – the council has no knowledge of any contracts with Indonesian recyclers – and launched an audit of its contractors.
Yuyun Ismawati, a senior advisor 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 are recyclables and what kind are 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 added.
“We generate nine million tonnes of plastic every year so why on earth do we want to import 300,000 tonnes?
“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 the 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, the 35-year-old scion of a powerful local family, who is also running in upcoming 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 dumpsites to salvage what they can. Destitute ragpickers also sift through the garbage in the hope of finding valuables or to sell some 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 pin the blame. What is clear is large amounts of British waste has turned up 9,000 miles away on dumping grounds in a small village outside Jakarta.
The smell of burning plastic hangs in the air. It is the stench of a recycling system that isn’t working.