A plastic link between work and pleasure

IMG_5425I was in Indonesia recently with people of Wageningen University’s Environmental Policy Group to learn about the problems that the country is grappling with to deal with its plastic waste. After China, Indonesia is the second biggest source of marine plastic debris. This is a problem for Indonesia itself, but obviously also for other countries as like fish, marine waste respects no borders. The reasons vary from technical (moving waste around among thousands of islands is expensive) to behavioural (not too long ago people would wrap their food in banana leaves, which can be discarded), so the solution most likely comes from a combination of technical and behavioural interventions.

IMG_5444Bali appears to be ahead of the rest of the country. Bye Bye Plastic Bags is one of the better-known initiatives (no doubt a charming TED Talk has helped), but there are many more. And it seems the local government does not sit on its hands either: modern shops and shopping centers are prohibited from providing plastic bags. As great as this sounds, however, there are still many smaller shops that will be allowed to use, sell, and provide plastic bags, many of which may eventually end up in the sea. And Bali is a tourist hotspot with huge stakes in cleaning up its act, but Indonesia is a huge country where people in many other regions than Bali will feel they have bigger problems to deal with. So whoever can find a solution to reconcile technology, household behaviour, and economic growth, has his or her work cut out.

A message from Sonja

This is also one of those occasions where work and pleasure coincide. At the 2017 Festival Maritim me and the rest of Tobermore met Sonja O’Brien. Sonja runs the Boghill Centre, where I have spent many Christmas holidays learning new tunes and enjoying sessions in the vicinity of Kilfenora, County Clare, Ireland. In Bremen Sonja taught us an Old Time tune by the name of The Big Sciote:


Sonja gave us permission to play the tune at gigs, but only under one condition: we must ask the audience not to discard their plastics in the ocean. This is of course a promise we are happy to keep. We play the tune with two other Old Time tunes, Ora Lee and Sail Away Ladies. It’s one of our favourite sets! So feel free to play The Big Sciote if you like, but please remember: don’t throw your plastics in the ocean. Or the rivers. Or the street. Or wherever. Don’t buy it in the first place!

Anyway, happy holidays y’all.


Science on marine plastic debris

Science just published an excellent article on the problem of marine plastic debris. Its main conclusion is that

“275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean.”

The authors break this number down by country, and show that four Asian countries (China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam) contribute almost half the plastic waste going into the oceans. The US is 20th in rank, contributing 0.9%; the authors also explain that the EU would be 18th in rank if it were counted as one country, which implies that the EU also contributes about 1% to the total amount of plastic waste going into the oceans. A few more observations:

  • The list is dominated by middle-income countries. The only low-income countries are Bangladesh, Burma, and North Korea. Is this the environmental Kuznets at work?
  • There is a striking correlation between income and the quality of waste management. The countries with the highest percentage of mismanaged waste are low-income countries or lower-middle-income countries. Even upper-middle-income countries have rates between 50% and 80%.
  • Brazil and Turkey are intriguing exceptions: despite being upper-middle-income countries their mismanagement rates are 11% and 18%, respectively. What are these countries doing differently than the rest?
  • The US has a comparatively low mismanagement rate (2%), but compensates its effort by the sheer amount of plastics produced per capita: 2.58 kg, where most other countries range between 0.5 and 1.5 kg. EU figures are not given but I suspect the EU does worse on waste treatment than the US.
  • A notable exception to that observation is Sri Lanka with a whopping 5.1 kg plastic waste produced per capita. What do they need all that plastic for?
Overall I can’t help but thinking that the energy invested by well-meaning westerners to reduce their use of plastics is but a drop in the ocean as long as the emerging world does not clean up its act.

Trash fishing in Pangandaran, Java

I visited the fishing village of Pangandaran, Java, during my holiday in Indonesia. It’s a beautiful place, delicious fresh grilled fish (ikan bakar), and you can watch the local fishing traditions.

I was shocked, however, by the sheer amount of litter in the sea, especially plastics. The problem is, apparently, that a nearby river discharges a lot of litter from upriver villages and towns, and the shape of the coast makes it a natural garbage collector. The result is heartbreaking:

Memories of Holland, and Indonesia

It was Saturday and I felt a craving for nasi goreng, perhaps with some tempeh goreng or beef rendang. Luckily, Saturday is market day in Wageningen, and I had noticed earlier a small stall selling Indonesian food at the open market on the church square. I decided to check it out. There is something strange with Indonesian food in The Netherlands: the Dutch eat a lot of it (nasi goreng, babi panggang, krupuk, sambal, acam campur), but because the trade is dominated by Chinese restaurants selling their own poor imitation of it, a lot of people think they are eating Chinese food.

A Dutch man so tall he barely fitted in the small cramped minivan took my order. I thought he looked a bit silly in his traditional Indonesian batik shirt, but when I learned his wife was from Indonesia I could forgive him. I asked who his costumers usually were. Do many Indonesian students buy his food? Or perhaps residents of the home for Dutch-Indonesian elderly people, here in Wageningen? Yes, every now and again, but not many, he said.

The elderly home is called Rumah Kita: Indonesian for “our house.” There is a small catch here, because in Indonesian the word for “us”, “we”, or “our” can be inclusive or exclusive. Kita is the inclusive form: it includes the person spoken to. The exclusive form is kami. If it were called “Rumah Kami” it would have sounded a bit like “You! Cheeseheads! Sod off, this is our house.” But the name Rumah Kita sends a welcoming message to all elderly members of the Dutch-Indonesian community: come and join us, we have nasi campur on the menu today.

These are the people who were born in places that at the time were called Batavia, Buitenzorg, Weltevreden, Bandoeng, or Soerabaja. Their father might have been a Dutch clerk for the colonial government, who started a family with a Javanese woman and decided to stay in The Emerald Belt. Or perhaps their grandfather was a planter who went to the Dutch Indies to put his study at the Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen to practice on a plantation near Malabar or Kalibaru. Overwhelmed by the Japanese invasion in the Second World War, they would have gone through unspeakable hardships in Japanese concentration camps. After the war they would have sought refuge in those same camps during the Indonesian uprising, when many Dutch, Dutch-Indonesians and ethnic Chinese were killed by the insurgents. Eventually they would have migrated with their parents to The Netherlands, most of them after Indonesia became independent. A lifetime in a cold country they only knew from their schoolbooks awaited.

As a folk musician and traveller, I have been searching for songs in the Dutch musical tradition about homesickness. The only songs I found so far are written in the 1950s, by Dutch-Indonesian artists, about their homesickness for the Indies. I admit I have mixed emotions about these songs. We were never supposed to be there. The Dutch have been terrible overlords to the Indonesians: when the Brits handed back the Indies to the Dutch after Napoleon was defeated, the Javanese revolted because they would rather live under British rule than under the Dutch. But the emotions expressed in these songs are genuine, and intense. Whatever you think of the geopolitics, you can’t deny their longing for the place that features in their earliest memories.

A small, fragile elderly lady with a walking stick came up to the stall with a long list of orders. Rendang, ketopak, some pisang goreng, and did you still have that delicious chicken curry with sereh? Yes, all frozen please, it’s for the week. For now I would just like one lemper please. When she sat down next to me with her snack I noticed a slight trace of Asia in her features. I asked whether she was from the Indies. Yes, she said, born and raised in Surabaya. We munched away on our food and chatted a little with the batik-clad man’s Indonesian wife. I watched as a group of Dutch students walked past on brightly painted wooden shoes – an initiation tradition of one of the local student societies. A group of Chinese students stared at them, giggling and taking pictures.

“I always get tears in my eyes when I eat this,” the elderly lady said. The Indonesian woman replied by asking “Are those tears of joy or sorrow?” The elderly lady looked at her with a thoughtful smile and said “I think it’s because of the tastiness.”