Tofu, Recycling Shipments, and Dioxin: How the Western World’s Waste is Contaminating Food in South-Eastern countries

An Indonesian man stands among burning plastic waste at a dumpsite in Mojokerto, East Java. From Fulli S. Handoko, https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2019/11/16/imported-plastic-saves-tofu-makers-poisons-their-villages.html

VAISHNAVI BHAMIDI

The West takes pride in its general emphasis on recycling. Most homes have recycling facilities nearby, public facilities such as malls and parks have numerous bins, and schools teach their students about the importance of sorting and properly disposing of their waste. Even with these diverse initiatives, however, there is a general absence of knowledge regarding good recycling practices. What can and can’t go into the recycling, how certain recyclable products should be cleaned before being disposed of, and what parts of a single waste item can be recycled or must be thrown into the trash are not known nor discussed. As a result, most of us, on a daily basis, recycle under the false pretence of doing good for the environment.  

These mistakes, which are often borne from ignorance and even good intentions, seem to be insignificant in our day-to-day. But what if you were told that your decision not to wash out your yogurt cup before throwing it into the blue bin is what might be causing fatal diseases for communities in South-East Asia? Would your opinion on the importance of proper recycling etiquette change? 

An alarming and recent report detailed how a portion of eggs from Indonesia may contain dioxin, one of the most hazardous chemicals for human health, along with other chemical products. Following that publication, egg and tofu sales dropped considerably [2]. In fact, the regional government of East Java reported that they had a surplus of 2.8 billion eggs [3]. In an effort to win back the trust of their constituents, members of government expressed skepticism about the results of the study and ate the very eggs that the report warned of in an official government assembly [3]. At face value, this issue seems to be the result of negligence and insufficient regulatory measures within the region. However, this event also indicates how an indifference for the environment in the Western world can have catastrophic implications for developing countries. 

While some recycling processes happen locally, many to-be-recycled waste products from developed nations are shipped overseas to Eastern countries to be further refined. However, as of last year, China banned imports of foreign plastic waste, which threw global recycling into chaos [4]. Gradually, the burden of recycling was redirected to South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. At this time, Indonesia witnessed a double in the amount of imported plastic waste [5]. Unfortunately, these countries ended up sending back hundreds of containers of waste to their countries of origin due to the extent of contamination of waste. Malaysia sent back 100 tonnes of waste to Australia, the Philippines sent back 69 containers of waste back to Canada, and Indonesia sent 49 containers of waste back to France. Even after taking these extreme measures, however, much of the contaminated waste is still left in those countries.      

In Indonesia, the contaminated waste, when coupled with ineffective regulatory measures for waste treatment, led to dangerous consequences. Much of the low-grade plastic that cannot be recycled is sold to local villagers, who rely on this material for fuel to power their homes and their businesses [6]. Plastic catches fire much faster than wood and the locals believe the fire from plastic combustion to be much hotter than any alternative fuels. In fact, even though the open combustion of waste is against the law in Indonesia, it is common for large factories to burn plastics. The tofu industry is one of the largest perpetrators of plastic combustion, and in some communities of Indonesia, there are as many as 40 factories packed in close proximity. The released vapors create thick, black smog which, when paired with unbearably hot weather, is damaging to the respiratory systems of villagers, especially children and the elderly. There have already been reports of hospitalizations and deaths due to the smog.    

The combustion of these plastics causes the vaporization of innumerable toxins, which include dioxins and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. Eventually, these chemicals can be absorbed by livestock and vegetation, which causes the bioaccumulation of toxins within animals and plants in the food chain [1]. The report found that eating one egg which has been exposed to such an array of chemicals exposes an individual to 70 times the ‘tolerable’ level of dioxin as set by the European Food Safety Authority [5]. Although there are no adverse health effects immediately after consumption, the report warns that prolonged exposure to such chemicals can dramatically expound the risk of contracting diseases such as cancer, endocrine disruption, immune system disorders, cardiovascular disease, etc. [5]  

Tofu and eggs are cheap sources of protein in Indonesia and are thus a staple in the common man’s diet. However, if the consumption of these foods could result in serious illness, do we not have a collective responsibility to protect the health and safety of these people? Educating one another about effective recycling practices and following proper protocol is not only environmentally sustainable, but it is what is needed in terms of human health and well-being. The West cannot treat the East as its dumping ground.

 

References

[1] Kahfi, K. (2019, November 16). Imported plastic saves tofu makers – but poisons their villages. Retrieved December 23, 2019, from The Jakarta Post website: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2019/11/16/imported-plastic-saves-tofu-makers-poisons-their-villages.html.

[2] Paddock, R. C. (2019, December 19). Indonesia lets plastic burning continue despite warning on toxins. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/19/world/asia/indonesia-dioxin-plastic-tofu.html.

[3] Meilisa, H. (2019, November 22). Khofifah dan anggota dprd jatim kompak makan telur di rapat paripurna. Retrieved December 23, 2019, from Detiknews website: https://news.detik.com/berita-jawa-timur/d-4794987/khofifah-dan-anggota-dprd-jatim-kompak-makan-telur-di-rapat-paripurna.

[4] Morton, K. L. A. (2019, July 9). Indonesia sends rubbish back to Australia and says it’s too contaminated to recycle. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/09/indonesia-sends-rubbish-back-to-australia-and-says-its-too-contaminated-to-recycle.

[5] Wibawa, T. (2019, November 22). Indonesians “poisoned” by eggs contaminated by Australian rubbish. Retrieved December 23, 2019, from ABC News website: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-22/indonesian-food-contamination-from-imported-australian-rubbish/11717008.

[6] Kusmiati, S., Yuniar, R., & Ray, L. (2019, November 14). Western plastics “poisoning Indonesian food chain.” BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-50392807.