Unilever sachets deface Indonesia’s beautiful rivers

by Daru Setyorini Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (ECOTON) Indonesia

At the Global Day of Action 2022, the Nusantara River Expedition Team of the Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (ECOTON) visited the head office of PT Unilever Indonesia Tbk to deliver three boxes of sachet waste to the President Director. Collected from Indonesian rivers, the boxes of sachet waste represent the current state of the once-pristine rivers.

The Nusantara River Expedition or Indonesian Rivers Expedition (IRE) is an initiative by ECOTON that establishes collaboration with local river communities, researchers, and journalists to raise awareness of the issue. Headed by Prigi Arisandi and Amirudin Muttaqin, the river expedition investigates river health and documents the condition of 68 rivers in Indonesia, starting from Wonosalam at the upstream area of the Brantas River in East Java to the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, Papua, Nusa Tenggara, and Bali. The journey is estimated to take 10 to 12 months.

The Indonesian Government Ordinance PP 22/2021 mandates that all Indonesian rivers must have zero trash as required in the annex to River Water Quality Standards for all water use classifications. Unfortunately, the Nusantara River expedition found that rivers in Indonesia are still being flooded with plastic, and this condition is very common in the country. As rivers clogged with plastic have become commonplace, the government and communities do not consider it a serious problem and see no urgent need to stop it. However, plastic waste occurs not only in Java’s most populated coasts and rivers. In Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, Mollucas, and Papua, a lot of plastic waste, especially sachets, is scattered in rivers and beaches.

A microplastic analysis of the water samples collected by the team found that 99% of Indonesia’s rivers are contaminated with microplastics from the degradation of plastic.

Plastic bags, styrofoam, straws, plastic bottles, and sachets break down into small pieces not larger than 5mm in size. Microplastics enter the human body and accumulate, which can cause long-term health effects. Microplastics contain toxic additives such as phthalates, BPA, or PFAS that have endocrine disruptors and carcinogenic effects.

The Nusantara River Expedition Team also visited the eastern region of Indonesia, including North Maluku Province at Ternate, Tidore Islands, North Halmahera, and Central Halmahera; Maluku Province at Ambon City and West Fiber District; and Papua Province at Sorong City and Sorong Regency. In these three provinces, brand audits have shown that Unilever sachets dominate the composition of plastic waste, mostly from brands such as Sunsilk, Royco, Rinso, Molto, TRESemme, Sunlight, Lifebuoy, and Dove. According to the Indonesia Waste Management Law 18/2008, sachet waste is categorized as residual waste, and as such, every producer must take responsibility to reduce and treat it properly under the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme.

Unilever is included in the top 5 global sources of plastic pollution along with Nestle and Coca-Cola. Their products are widely used in Indonesia and reach even remote villages such as communities near Barito, Kuin, and the Martapura Rivers.

The government should seriously increase waste management services in Indonesia and stop waste from getting into waterways. Producers such as Unilever, Wings, Indofood, Mayora, Ajinomoto, P&G, Unicharm, Danone, Coca Cola, and Nabati must take responsibility for cleaning up their waste so that it does not threaten the health of the residents of Banjarmasin and South Kalimantan or the rest of Indonesia. Producers must also participate and aim at reducing polluting plastic packaging. In addition to redesigning these packaging, producers must also clean up the plastic waste that has come to contaminate Barito, Martapura, Kuin, and other river communities.

The river expedition team asked PT Unilever to take full responsibility for polluting Indonesian rivers with sachet waste and immediately take the following actions:

  1. Establish detailed, clear, and firm targets and roadmaps to stop selling multilayer sachet and disposable plastic packaging, aim for a reusable refillable distribution system, and announce Unilever’s serious commitment and roadmap to prevent and reduce plastic waste generation to the public.
  2. Stop investing in counterfeit solutions for handling waste, such as downcycle recycling, which stops the circulation of plastic materials, chemical recycling, and refuse-derived fuel (RDF) that release carbon emissions and hormone-disrupting toxins and microplastics.
  3. Increase investment in real solutions to overcome the plastic crisis by developing materials, technology, and distribution systems that are safe and sustainable, replace single-use plastics with reuse-refill systems, and implement EPR to increase the collection and sorting of plastic waste from consumers for all their packaging.
  4. Expand the area for implementing trials/pilots selling reusable packaging and building a distribution network for refill kiosks to remote and remote areas of Eastern Indonesia – areas that are not reached by the formal waste management services of the local government.
  5. Support the efforts of the government and the communities in building and replicating independent waste management areas to encourage the implementation of the responsibility of citizens who produce waste every day, by applying the principle of zero waste in bulk through reducing waste generation, segregating waste from sources, and operating organic waste processing facilities in each village and sub-district settlement area.
  6. Make efforts to prevent contamination of toxic chemicals and hormone-disrupting and carcinogenic microplastic particles on products and product packaging that is marketed.
  7. Carry out efforts to clean up and collect sachets and plastic waste scattered in Indonesian waters, including in Eastern Indonesia, including the coastal waters of Ternate City; Weda City Coastal Waters; Sorong City waters; Ambon City waters; Bandarlampung City Beach; Bengkulu City Beach; Batang Arau estuary in Padang; Tapak Tuan Beach, South Aceh; Deli River in Medan; Batanghari River in Jambi; Musi River in Palembang; Kapuas river; Martapura River; the Kuin River; the Barito River in South Kalimantan; Kandilo River in Tanah Grogot Paser City; Mahakam River, Karang Mumus River in East Kalimantan; Poso Lake and River in Tentena District, Poso Regency, Donggala Coast; Palu Bay and Tondano Lake.
  8. Educate consumers about the dangers of plastic and invite them to switch to a reuse and refill distribution system through massive and mass public advertisements on television, print, and online media.

These demands aim to put a stop to Unilever and other fast-moving consumer goods companies from continuously defacing not just Indonesia’s rivers but our ecosystem.