Fisherman Nanang drove us in his boat down the Bengawan Solo River in Gresik Regency. Near the sea, he turned off the ship's engine. "The anchors go down," Nanang said. "It's very shallow, don't get trapped, you can't go home later."
At the start of the rainy season this year, the Bengawan Solo River here in East Java, Indonesia, is clean at first glance. It’s brown, the color of ordinary river water. Traces of plastic rubbish leftover from the dry season are visible on the river’s banks and in the mangroves.
"Try to come during the dry season," said Nanang, "boats cannot pass.”
Nanang lives in Ujung Pangkah, a village at the end of the Bengawan Solo River, just before it enters the Java Sea. Every dry season he witnesses rubbish covering the surface of the river, making it difficult for fishermen to go to sea.
In the rainy season, trash drifts into the sea until it ends up on the beaches in Bali to the east, Nanang said.
According to data from the Ocean Cleanup Project provided by Resource Watch, an open-data visualization platform, 32,500 tonnes of plastic waste from Bengawan Solo enter the ocean each year. Three other rivers in Java are also of concern for the amount they contribute to ocean pollution. They are the Brantas River, in East Java, with 38,900 tonnes of garbage per year; the Serayu River, in Central Java, with 17,100 tonnes; and the Progo River, in Yogyakarta, with 12,800 tonnes.
The Ocean Cleanup Project data also estimated that plastic emissions from rivers into the world’s oceans was between 1.15 million to 2.41 million tonnes per year. The data visualization illustrates three plastic waste piles in the Java Sea adjacent to the mouth of the Bengawan Solo.
The plastic waste is not only damaging to the environment but also dangerous to humans and fish, according to research from the Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (Ecoton), an institute for ecological studies and wetland protection.
Ecoton found that micro-plastic that cannot be detected visibly had entered the bodies of fish in the Brantas River that are then purchased at markets and consumed. It did not rule out similar cases occurring in other rivers, including Bengawan Solo.
To find out where the plastic garbage comes from, a team of reporters from Tirto.id traversed the Bengawan Solo River in early February 2020 starting from Ujung Pangkah fishing village in Gresik and then driving upriver to Solo, Central Java.
Longest trash trail in Java
As Nanang said, we came at the wrong time if we wanted to find a sea of garbage downstream.
Some of the rubbish we saw at the start of our journey was clearly household rubbish from settlements around the river. A row of houses in Ujung Pangkah village is right on the riverbank, with their back doors facing the waterway.
From Ujung Pangkah we headed toward Brondong Harbor, passing a number of small bridges, almost all of which were full of garbage.
The local government had installed a net on one bridge to prevent residents from littering. However, presumably, that was not seen as a warning. Some garbage was stuck rotting in the net.
Bundles of plastic bags, plastic packaging for various food products, oils, detergents, and so on littered the beach. This scene is common along the coast of the Java Sea in Gresik.
We saw similar conditions at the Laren Bridge in Lamongan, the Babat Bridge in Tuban and in Trucuk, Bojonegoro. None of those were as bad as in Brondong, but trash could be seen in the flood gates.
In Ngawi, the Bengawan Solo meets Kali Madiun, providing a stark contrast. While both are contaminated with plastic waste, the water from the Bengawan Solo appears almost black compared to that from Kali Madiun.
Basuki, a local, said the Ngawi Environment Office had banned residents from using river water for their daily needs, such as bathing and washing.
"Before there was waste, it was clear. We bathed there every day," he said, referring to Kali Madiun, a tributary of the Bengawan Solo.
Similar conditions were seen in Sragen, Central Java.
Under the Gawan Bridge, said to be the most polluted point along the Bengawan Solo, we saw plastic garbage piled up and burned at the river's edge. In the rainy season, when the Bengawan Solo’s water level rises, the pile of garbage is dragged away by river currents.
A resident named Suryanto said some people dispose of household trash along the riverbank "because they have no other choice." They usually do it at night from the top of the Gawan Bridge, he said.
Suryanto explained that because officers from the government sanitation agency didn’t collect the trash, the residents ended up making piles on the banks of the river and burning them.
Residents do the same in Boyolali and Solo, hoarding and then burning household waste on the edge of small rivers that lead to Bengawan Solo.
Local government: 'Our capability is limited'
Tutik, from the Central Java Environment Agency, said a lot of landfill rubbish on the banks of the river was coming from rural areas. Because there are no garbage transport facilities that reach the villages, residents chose to hoard their own garbage.
"We have socialized, [residents] not to hoard garbage, but we have limitations," Tutik said.
The new regional government can serve urban areas in transporting waste, she explained. But the amount of transportation equipment is not proportional to the distribution of residents, nor the amount of waste.
"We have encouraged the creation of an independent village, to make an independent waste collection facility, because we cannot possibly serve all of them," Tutik said.
In Central Java there are already several districts or cities working to reduce the amount of trash by restricting the use of plastic bags in supermarkets.
In East Java, Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa from the National Awakening Party, part of President Joko Widodo’s governing coalition, issued a circular aimed at reducing plastic waste by 30 percent by 2025.
But Khofifah's commitment seems to be lacking in the field.
Ecoton's research found that East Java is a dumping site for imported plastic waste from European countries and the United States.
"There are companies that import paper waste, but the contents are not just paper, there is also plastic," Daru Setyorini, an Ecoton researcher, told Tirto.
Isgianto, head of the Bengawan Solo River Basins Agency, acknowledged that the Bengawan Solo is “the longest garbage bin ever.” Nevertheless, the government is trying to reduce the burden of pollution in the river.
"We are not closing our eyes, but we are trying," he said. "We have done a lot.” While the Bengawan Solo River Basin Agency is responsible for pollution of the streams, it does not deal specifically with rubbish or domestic waste, he said.
Lack of aggressive policy action
Our investigation that plastic waste from households pollutes Bengawan Solo is, in fact, in line with the results of research by the Ministry of Environment and the Faculty of Geography at Gadja Mada University in 2018.
Titled "Carrying Capacity and Allocation of Load in the Bengawan Solo River Pollution," the research shows that 43 percent of Bengawan Solo pollution comes from household waste; 28 percent is from agricultural waste; 21 percent from livestock waste; 8.5 percent from industrial waste; and the rest from hotel and hospital waste.
Among villages, cities and regencies that are bisected by Bengawan Solo, Lamongan Regency contributes the highest amount of waste, at 44.37 percent, according to the research. Next are Bojonegoro, Blora, and Tuban, all areas where pollutants accumulate and flow into the Bengawan Solo.
Some plastic waste we found floating in Bengawan Solo in February included Bango Soy Sauce wrappers, Indomie wrappers, Filma cooking oil plastic packaging, So-Klin detergent packaging, Fire Boat packaging, and Aqua plastic bottles.
People often associate littering with behavior done by people who do not love the environment or do not have environmental awareness. On the other hand, we sometimes overlook the government's role in providing adequate waste disposal management for all citizens, including the management of plastic waste.
Many government programs focus on recycling and reducing the use of plastic waste. But the state has never passed laws to regulate these measures, only plans asking producers to limit the production of plastic packaging. And companies that produce plastic packaging lose control over its use once it reaches consumers.
Ecoton researcher Daru Setyorini believes that plastic packaging manufacturers should be held responsible because "they produce plastic waste." She suggested that companies reduce the production of single-use plastic products. The government could also provide a plastic excise, she said.
With little waste management and a lack of aggressive policy action from the government, plastic waste can easily end up in waterways. When it comes to the Bengawan Solo, that means tens of thousands of tons of plastic waste eventually flow far into the Java Sea throughout the year, breaking down into micro-particles that can harm fish, marine habitats and human health.
This is a translated version of a story that originally appeared on Tirto.id on April 30, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity. The story is part of a collaborative project supported by a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN), and Resource Watch, an international research institute that focuses on issues of future sustainability.
Head of collaboration project: Mawa Kresna
Reporter: Reja Hidayat
Photographer & videographer: Bhagavad Sambada, Riva Rais
Research & data visualization: Ign. L. Adhi Bhaskara & Hanif Gusman
Infographics & illustrations: Louis Lugas
Editor Fahri Salam
Banner image: Illustration of plastic waste polluting the Bengawan Solo River / Credit: Tirto.id/Simply