Saturday, January 10, 2009

Talking Rubbish

Looking back this week through the nearly 200 odd columns of stultifyingly ill informed drivel that I’ve churned out over the past few millennia, I suddenly noticed one glaring omission regarding the subjects that I've held forth on, namely that of litter.

This perennial global, but especially Indonesian, problem was brought home to me recently during my Christmas holiday in Lombok. After a stormy night on the idyllic island of Gili Trawangan, I went for a dip in the usually pristine waters and suddenly realized with horror that I was surrounded by discarded plastic packaging. Presumably the previous evening's wind and rain had washed the detritus ashore. I leapt from the sea as if the victim of a combined hammerhead shark and jellyfish attack, my holistic, new age, island fantasy rudely shattered by the tsunami of trash.
In a recent study I read on another of my favorite destinations, Pulau Seribu (The Thousand Islands) that lie off Jakarta Bay, I learned that on 23 of the islands, 34,000 pieces of litter in 11 categories were found, the most common items being polystyrene blocks, plastic bags and discarded footwear. Quite why shoes and flip-flops score so highly is beyond me as few Jakartans can really afford the Imelda Marcos life. Plastic bags are a perpetual menace of course and are presumed to carpet the bottom of inshore Jakarta Bay.
The amount of litter that lies all over the Indonesian Archipelago is one of the most dispiriting things that I've encountered in my years here. Much as I dislike to stereotype and tar an entire culture with the same brush, Indonesians in general have a disappointingly more laissez-faire attitude to the problem than perhaps the majority of other countries in the world.

Aqua bottles are nonchalantly lobbed out of bus windows as if this were just the way of things whilst Jakarta’s floods are hugely exacerbated by the sedimentary layers of noodle and detergent packets that accumulate on the bottom of the rivers here. A friend of mine popped down to one of the fun and frolicsome anti-Israel demonstrations that ran last week and reported that a terminal moraine of polystyrene meal containers carpeted the area when the whole thing had finished.

The problem can't simply be put down to poverty as other poor countries don't have a litter problem nearly as bad as the one here. People here are scrupulous about keeping themselves and their houses clean but all concern about the general state of the environment seems to stop at their front gates. Simply toss your rubbish out the car window onto the street and it’s, “No longer my problem". This seems like a sad metaphor for the wider antisocial evils of corruption and general lack of civic pride in Indonesia. There is also the public health issue of litter which leads to rats and insect populations ballooning in urban areas. In the 14th century, organic litter contributed greatly to the bubonic plague epidemic that raged through Europe.

Admittedly though, there aren't a whole lot of rubbish bins around. As I recall, a few years ago one of the city's endless list of heroic under funded failures was to install receptacles around town that were handily split into bins for organic and inorganic waste. As I seem to remember though, the scheme was scrapped after many of the bins were stolen. People also like to burn their rubbish here too of course but if anything the choking, acrid, carcinogenic smoke that is produced seems even worse than the litter problem itself to those whose lungs are unaccustomed to smoking two packets of ultra-high tar Kretek cigarettes per day.

My few attempts to educate people hear about litter (well, confront them with their inconsiderate behavior in fact) have not been a great success to be frank. A couple of years back I tried returning an Aqua bottle to a motorist who had just thrown it from his Honda. He graciously took it on board, drove off... and then tossed it out the window again another 200 yards down the road. 5% success there I would estimate.

This is not particularly commendable, to be sure, but it’s rather better than I fared this week when I attempted the same act of public admonishment whilst 'researching' this column. I won't go into the details but suffice to say that I nearly got my head kicked in. It would have been no less than I deserved, for neglecting to pick on a litter bug smaller and more defenseless than myself.

In fact, according to research conducted by the author Frances McAndrews in the book Environmental Psychology, women, young people, rural dwellers and people who live alone litter more than men, older people, urban dwellers and multi person households. Next time I'll take the books advice and choose a nice young single country girl to lecture. Suits me just fine.
PS Funnily enough, just after tossing this week's MM off I found this in the Jakarta Post. The penny drops for one Indonesian at least.