Microplastics found in Arau River water sample in Indonesia

More and more studies reveal the prevalence of microplastics not only in the environment but also in human bodies. These micropollutants have invaded food chains, the air we breathe, and water bodies that are key to peoples’ livelihood and survival. 

In Indonesia, #breakfreefromplastic movement member Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (ECOTON) set out on a 300-day journey to examine the state of 68 rivers in the country. Their initiative Nusantara River Expedition has been documenting the pollution and water quality of the rivers.

Video shows floating garbage in Arau River in the city of Padang in West Sumatra province.
Despite having waste cleaners, new trash gets into the river every day.

In Padang city in West Sumatra province, ECOTON was joined by fellow AZWI (Alliance for Zero Waste Indonesia) member WALHI-West Sumatra (Indonesian Forum Environment), where they have found over 20 illegal dumpsites. These dumpsites, along with plastic debris in the Arau river, were identified as the primary sources of microplastic in the city.

Aside from collecting water samples, ECOTON and WALHI-West Sumatra also conducted a brand audit, in which volunteers identified the top brands polluting the river: Unilever, Danone, Coca-Cola, Indofood, and Wings.

International fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) corporations Unilever and Coca-Cola also topped the global brand audits conducted by #breakfreefromplastic in 2021. They also figure consistently in the annual brand audits over the past five years.

Various environment groups have been calling for corporate accountability on the proliferation of single-use plastics worldwide. Most notably, a global campaign recently launched by Quit Sachets is specifically calling on Unilever to stop the use of sachets and other false solutions to plastic pollution that the corporation supports especially in Indonesia.
 
Sachets are single-use pouches used across Asian markets, often containing small portions of basic goods such as shampoo, laundry detergent, instant coffee, and soy sauce. In Indonesia, they reportedly make up 16% percent of plastic waste in the country, or about 768,000 tonnes per year. With no market value and no commercially-viable choices for safe treatment, disposal options for sachets are limited, with local governments forced to bury or burn them. Moreover, FMCGs like Unilever have partnered with cement companies to burn plastic waste in cement kilns. Cement company SBI, for example, can accommodate up to 30,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year.

Arau River, Padang, West Sumatra—WALHI (Indonesian Forum Environment) and ECOTON held up posters calling out corporations responsible for producing single-use plastic that end up polluting the rivers.

A rapid test of the water sample from Arau river on May 10, 2022 found 420 microplastic pollutants in 100 liters of river water—proof of the dismal state of the river.

“Most of them, 85%, is filament fragmentation from clear plastic and sachet (foil packaging),” said ECOTON’s Executive Director, Prigi Arisandi.


“The water sample was then cleaned and poured into a petri dish. Garbage and plastic are separated by a micropointer. The material suspected of being microplastic is rubbed with a pointer and if it is not broken or fragmented, it is categorized as microplastic… 420 particles measuring 1000-2500 microns in the type of filament or clear sheet and 20 particles in the type of fiber or yarn. The source of fiber is textile or polyester which is removed in the laundry process. Meanwhile, the filaments came from plastic bags, clear plastic and sachets.” —ECOTON

Garbage are found in Arau River in the city of Padang in West Sumatra province

With various wastes and microplastic contaminating the Arau river, Arisandi emphasized the need to have good solid waste management and regulations to reduce single-use plastics in the city.

Follow the Nusantara River Expedition on YouTube as they continue to document the health of rivers in Indonesia. Regular updates and findings are also featured on ECOTON’s Facebook page.

All photos and videos are property of ECOTON.