Indonesia’s Customs agency has seized 210 tonnes of “toxic” garbage at the port in Surabaya and is preparing to ship eight containers of material back to Australia.
The Age and Sydney Morning Herald revealed last week that a container of contaminated plastic waste in the Indonesian port of Batam would be sent back to Australia after being exported by recycling giant Visy.
It can now be revealed the eight containers of waste in Surabaya, which were supposed to contain paper for recycling but which also had mixed plastic waste and other contaminants inside, were sent from Brisbane and arrived in Indonesia on June 12.
When the containers were opened by Customs officials on Tuesday, plastic bottles, plastic sheets, used nappies and other non-paper material were clearly visible mixed in with the vast bales of paper packed into the container.
The head of Customs at Tanjung Perak port, Basuki Suryanto, said that when the containers had been fully unpacked his officials had found electronic waste, remote controls, soft drink cans, electronic cables, sandals, styrofoam, old CDs and various other materials.
This meant the waste was classified in the Indonesian system as “B3”, and all eight containers would be sent back to Australia.
B3 is short for Bahan Berbahaya dan Beracun – hazardous and toxic materials – and includes waste which can directly or indirectly damage or pollute the environment and endanger human health, as well as medical waste, materials that could be explosive, inflammable, reactive, infectious or corrosive.
Indonesia’s Customs service said the company that exported the containers was Oceanic Multitrading, which is based in Sydney and owned by Indonesian-born businessman Nisin Sunito. Sunito’s company exports waste paper from Australia and imports it back into Australia and New Zealand as “environmentally friendly newsprint”, according to the company’s website.
The company also has interests in a chemical business, and owns and operates the sprawling 331,800 hectare Kiana cattle station, which is nearly five times the size of Singapore, in the Northern Territory.
Oceanic Multitrading declined requests for comment last week about why plastic waste and other contaminants were mixed in with the bales of paper which was supposed to be recycled.
Basuki said Indonesian Customs had also not spoken to Sunito, and the agency had not yet been in contact with its Australian government counterparts.
The Indonesian company that brought the waste to Indonesia was Mount Dreams Indonesia, which was founded in 2009 and which claims on its website that it is “committed to an eco-friendly operating environment”. It also declined several requests for comment.
A total of 66 containers including eight from Australia, 38 from America and 20 from Germany have been inspected and impounded by Indonesia’s Customs service because they were contaminated, Basuki said.
“We unloaded all [the containers] one by one. We did it first and then invited the Environment Ministry later because they are the ones who should determine whether or not the contents have been contaminated by B3 materials,” he said.
The only sanctions faced by the importers of these containers, so far, has been notification that they will have to re-export them within 90 days.
“But our regulations actually allow for sanctions … [of] minimum four years imprisonment and a maximum of 12 years imprisonment,” Basuki said.
The Australian government has promised to work cooperatively with countries that have been sent Australian waste that cannot be recycled, and suggested it could be prepared to accept the return of material to Australia.
Confirmation that more containers are due to be sent back to Australia will place further pressure on the Morrison government to do more to help Australia’s recycling sector cope with its waste disposal problem.
The crisis in household recycling is not limited to Australia, but has affected wealthy nations around the world. It was triggered by China’s decision to stop the importation of plastic waste for recycling in January 2018, which effectively turned the global market for plastic waste upside down.
Malaysia has flagged plans to send material it says cannot be recycled back to Australia, while Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines are among nations that have tightened their laws about waste exports.