Marine Plastics in Northern Australian Waters: Targeted Aid Will Help Indonesia to Help Us

17 April 2019 Kenneth Marsdon, Research Assistant, Northern Australia and Regional Development Research Programme


A recent ABC report about another large ghost net being retrieved in North-East Arnhem Land, highlights the ongoing problem of discarded nets and the environmental destruction they cause. In addition to the problem of retrieving lost nets, local rangers also have to contend with the tonnes of rubbish regularly driven onto the coast by monsoonal winds from the north. Awareness campaigns have achieved a reduction in the number of ghost nets being retrieved, but the quantity of marine plastics, in particular, has not fallen. Research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science  has shown that the majority of the waste comes from Indonesia. Late last year a visit by an Indonesian diplomat, Dicky Soerjanatamihardja, to the region emphasised the importance of education in Indonesia as a means of alleviating the problem. The question is, will education be enough to lessen the impact on Australia’s northern coastline and waters, let alone reduce the accumulation of plastics in the world’s oceans?


Mr Soerjanatamihardja’s recent visit may be a friendly gesture, but a more comprehensive and targeted effort is needed to address this issue. There is a general consensus, which includes the Cleaning Up Cape Arnhem group, that acknowledges that education or awareness alone is not enough to meaningfully reduce the quantity of plastics polluting the waters and coastline of northern Australia. To significantly reduce the plastic waste, mechanisms for disposing of, or recycling, plastics need to be developed at their point of origin.  At present, local rangers are using their own resources and taking the responsibility to clean up the remote, and formerly pristine, coast of marine pollution that originates predominantly from Indonesia, but it is a problem for both states to combat together. Both countries have an equal interest in ameliorating this problem. A bilateral approach is required to contribute to reducing a significant environmental problem, both regionally and globally.

In protecting its northern environment, Australia must look at more constructive ways of working with its regional neighbours. A targeted approach to help Indonesia recycle its plastic waste is required. This should be initiated through a targeted aid package, together with the established knowledge that Australia and other developed countries possess.

Indonesia should also look to other countries that are grappling with the problem of plastic waste. The coastal city of Aqaba in Jordan relies on its pristine coastline for its tourist industry. It has tackled its own waste problem by working with the European Union and the United Nations Environment Programme, with the aim of increasing recycling rates. This, in turn, has created new job opportunities. Indonesia too, is highly reliant on its marine environment, not only for tourism, but for its own domestic seafood consumption. Indonesia could take the example of the Jordanian experience and with a co-ordinated effort, including co-operation with Australia, it could reduce the amount of marine plastics entering Australia’s northern waters. What this implies is that eradicating plastic pollution requires a global effort.

Australia’s role in aiding Indonesia would have more than a flow-on effect on the primary concern of reducing plastic pollution in the Top End and the benefit to its own waters. Bilateral projects that benefit both countries through working together for a common goal, can help forge closer relations. Indonesia, as well as contributing to plastic pollution itself, also contends with the same marine debris problem from its northern neighbours. Currently five countries, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand account for up to 60 per cent of the plastic waste entering the world’s oceans. With some help from Australia, Indonesia, by showing it is playing its part in tackling the problem, may induce a knock-on effect in the greater South-East Asian region. In this instance, the aid provided to Indonesia could be shown to be in Australia’s own national interest and useful in encouraging others in the region to show greater global responsibility.

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