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Exposing Plastic’s Damaging Effects on the Environment

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Tiza Mafira is a law and public policy expert specializing in environmental law, waste management and climate change policy. She holds a master of laws from Harvard Law School and a bachelor of laws from Universitas Indonesia.

Since 2013, Tiza Mafira has served as co-founder and executive director of the Indonesia Plastic Bag Diet Movement (Gerakan Indonesia Diet Kantong Plastik), which pushes for less use of plastic bags in Indonesia through regulation and awareness. In 2018, she received mention as a UN Ocean Hero by United Nations Environment for her work in successfully advocating for plastic bag bans in a number of cities across Indonesia. In 2019, the organization received the Mental Revolution award from the government of Indonesia. She is one of the activists featured in the 2019 documentary The Story of Plastic.

Tiza Mafira also leads Climate Policy Initiative Indonesia, a nonprofit think tank and advisory organization focused on public policy related to land use and energy transitions. Prior to this role, she worked for six years as a corporate attorney in Jakarta, Indonesia-based law firm Makarim & Taira S., where she specialized in natural resources and forestry law. She has also worked at McKinsey & Co., the Boston, Massachusetts-based environmental group CERES and the Office of the Special Staff of the President for International Affairs during President Yudhoyono’s first term.


Taking on Plastics to Help Protect the Environment

Tiza, you left your job as a corporate attorney to improve the environment, focusing especially on plastics. This is an enormous undertaking. Before we zoom in on some key areas, can you tell us why the environment and educating the public about the plastics problem is important to you? Also, discuss how this job is going and provide some scope on how big the plastics problem is.

Tiza Mafira: I’ve been an environmentalist since I was a teenager, although I didn’t really realise it then. I always thought I was just being a pragmatic person. Friends would remember me as the kid who always went around with trash in my bag because I wanted to wait until I found a trash can. Protecting nature for me was just logical: If we don’t take care of it, it will cause us discomfort. When I was in school, my peers and I did not receive a curriculum on waste management, and we did not learn composting. I learned about the impact of our daily mindless plastic disposal much later on after I started working, and it blew my mind how illogical it was that we, as a human species, were acting to our own detriment.

I decided to act as I thought. It was just a matter of convincing retailers to tweak their policies in the name of economic incentives so that we would see a change in behaviour. Little did I know back then that this would take almost a decade of work.

Tiza Mafira - portrait - effects of plastic on environment - Fruit-Powered
Standing before a wall of plastic bottles, Tiza Mafira has been passionate about caring for the environment from a young age. Now this ambitious woman is helping lead the global awakening on the devastating effects of plastic on environment while pushing for sustainable solutions.

Indonesian Movement for Plastic Bags Diet Creates a Powerful Buzz

Beyond serving as Climate Policy Initiative’s associate director, you’re helping educate your fellow Indonesian citizens as part of the Indonesian Movement for Plastic Bags Diet. Talk about people’s knowledge about plastic in connection with pollution and health problems and how receptive people are to this organization’s efforts.

Tiza Mafira: Back in 2013 when I first started becoming involved, very few people were aware of the plastics problem. Educating the public was necessary but was difficult because the public consists of a massive range of ages, income levels, education levels, occupations, ethnicities and preferences. All these factors played a role in shaping what kind of messages they would find appealing. We didn’t have the resources to create education programs tailored to each of these preferences. I knew we had to aim for something massive that would have a mass impact on all levels of the public.

Our first break came when the government received our petition for a plastic bag charge and trialled it nationwide in 2016, affecting 200 million people. All of a sudden, almost instantly, 200 million people were becoming informed on the plastics problem. People wanted to know why they could no longer receive free plastic bags. And the information we had prepared, on pollution and ocean mammal deaths and all the horrible effects of plastic, were suddenly being circulated by government, by media and by retailers to their customers.

How Is Plastic Created?

People have heard for several decades that plastic is straining the health of the environment. This knowledge largely comes from what they’ve learned about only plastic’s final stage: disposal. Can you provide a snapshot of what happens during the other stages of plastic’s creation, from extraction all the way through consumption?

Tiza Mafira: Well, plastic comes from oil. In fact, plastic is becoming the derivative product of oil that is favoured by oil producers, lauded due to their projections of increasing plastics demand. Even though demand for fuel is on downward trend due to a rise in electric vehicles, they are still investing in oil extraction, and that is because of plastic. After extracting, or fracking, of oil, the oil gets transported to a refinery and then goes to the petrochemical production plants where the refined oil is turned into plastic pellets, often called nurdles. These plastic pellets then go on to become everything from the necessary (hospital IV drip bags, for example) to the absolutely pointless (straws, for example).

Unfortunately, a large proportion of plastic goes to single-use, disposable, nonessential products. After consuming whatever was inside the plastic in perhaps less than 30 minutes, we then throw them “away.” Which is to say we move them to another place on this planet where they then remain a pollutant for hundreds of years.

Tiza Mafira holding single-use plastic wrapper - effects of plastic on environment - Fruit-Powered
Single-use plastics are creating extremely damaging environmental effects, Tiza Mafira says. Many companies are using plastics in combination with other materials such as foil and paper, making it next to impossible for these products to be recycled. Amazon.com, for example, has been shipping products in paper mailers with plastic bubble wrap and plastic-based stickers on the paper mailers. World Economic Forum data, as highlighted in The Story of Plastic, show that 32 percent of plastic packaging litters the environment, with 40 percent of it being put into landfills, 14 percent of it being incinerated and 14 percent of it being recycled. Only 2 percent of all plastic packaging, however, is effectively recycled into a usable product.

The Effects of Single-Use Plastics

A scene early in the eye-opening documentary The Story of Plastic shows the banks of Indonesia’s Ci Liwung River awash in plastic bags and bottles, shining a light on the damaging effects of single-use plastics. These plastics are made using materials designed to last forever. Will you talk about single-use plastics and put into perspective how much of our plastics problems is connected to these plastic bags, bottles, straws and eating utensils?

Tiza Mafira: Someone once told me that the plastic bag was first invented as an eco-friendly and reusable alternative to using paper, which is made of trees. That may have been true, but the plastic bag has certainly evolved into a monster since then. The problem is that plastic bags and a large proportion of plastics are designed as disposable. At some point in history, corporations took a “miracle product” that was flexible and strong and so durable it could last hundreds of years without deteriorating and turned it into a single-use, disposable product. They were so successful that, within a decade, these disposable products had become an indispensable part of modern life, even though the cans, glass bottles and metal utensils that existed before still worked perfectly well. And the products are so cheap it is not even worth thinking about whether to use them or not. They’re practically free. Free plastic bags, free straws, free cups, free cutleries.

I once received a complete set of plastic cutleries in my pizza order! I mean, what kind of monster eats pizza with cutleries? The result, of course, is that you have a tsunami of plastic products that you didn’t necessarily need being used and disposed of by 7.8 billion people at a rate so fast, it’s transformed entire landscapes within a decade. That’s why you see me going down a river—shocked—remembering a time not so long ago when I was younger and the world didn’t look like this.

“We need a reusable revolution. That is the only way we can survive. We cannot afford to pollute our world with more disposables, and we cannot keep extracting natural resources.”
—Tiza Mafira

Shifting the Plastics Burden From Consumer and Recycling to Government and Business

A lot of plastics education has focused on consumers’ responsibility to reduce, reuse and recycle. A chorus is rising, with many arguing that corporations producing so much plastic are getting off easy, with consumers being asked to handle the problem corporations have created—even to these business’ financial gain. Does this idea resonate with you and, if so, what would you like to see change about this news media narrative as well as governmental policies?

Tiza Mafira: I think it is very unfair to put the burden on consumers. “Plastics are not wrong; it’s the people using it that are wrong” is a phrase I hear often from industry backers, referring to people who “don’t recycle.” These are empty words because how is an average person expected to recycle, exactly? The maximum most of us can do is to place our trash in a sorting bin. Apparently, more than 90 percent of the plastics globally, including those that we have dutifully placed in the bin, do not get recycled effectively.

There are multiple reasons for this that have nothing to do with the consumer:

  • The material is designed so poorly (a single product can have five different types of plastic all stuck together and need to be separated), driving up recycling costs.
  • Recyclers have limited purchasers because recycled plastic pellets are more expensive than virgin plastic pellets.
  • Oil companies keep producing more oil, driving down the cost of virgin plastic pellets.

Watch The Story of Plastic Trailer and Purchase This Powerful Movie to Learn More About the Plastic Problem

E-Commerce Rise Is Accelerating Plastic Production

Online purchasing such as through Amazon.com is growing in popularity. Has the rise of e-commerce affected plastic production in any way while leading to the deforestation of trees used in creating most or all the boxes used in packaging products?

Tiza Mafira: Online shopping is another huge problem as it generates so much packaging—more so than regular shopping. The problem with online shopping is that consumers are not given power to choose their packaging. If we go to a regular shop, we can choose to bring our own bag, choose to reject a straw, etc. Online shops should re-create that freedom of choice for an online experience.

Apart from offering me millions of products to choose from, I also want options on how my purchase will get wrapped. I want to choose shredded newspaper over bubble wrap, paper tape over duct-tape, recycled cardboard over paper packaging linked to deforestation—and feel free to charge me. It is frustrating that the very large online marketplaces and delivery companies have not yet gone in this direction.

How Does Plastic Affect Oceans and Sea Life?

Part of the focus of the Fruit-Powered brand is on spotlighting the benefits of a fruit-based raw vegan diet. A scene in The Story of Plastic, however, must be stated to provide context: A fisherman from the Philippines says 40 percent of his catch is plastic. Tiza, how much time do we have to turn around the plastics problem before it destroys sea life?

Tiza Mafira: The World Economic Forum once said that if we do nothing, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish. But, really, plastics have already destroyed sea life. Plastic kills 1 million ocean creatures annually, and microplastics have now contaminated every particle of life, found everywhere from drinking water to rain to inside our own bodies. Unfortunately, we are already there, and the only thing we can do now is to stop it from getting worse.

Buy The Story of Plastic and Get Informed and Take Action

How Does Plastic Affect Human Health and Wildlife?

Let’s further explore health but this time from the perspective of land creatures. How is plastic affecting human health as well as the health of wildlife such as birds and squirrels?

Tiza Mafira: Plastics are a chemical, and I do not need to get very technical to say that the effect of unseen chemicals on our health is not great. But even visibly large plastic makes its way into wildlife all the time. Birds that go out to sea to find food often come back with plastic and feed it to their young offspring, unaware that they are killing their own babies.

Production of Plastic Has Soared in Recent Decades

Annual plastic production has skyrocketed since 1990, when 120 million tons were produced, as shown in The Story of Plastic. In 2015, 381 million tons were produced. I recognize that the world population increased from 5.4 billion to 7.4 billion during this time, but why has plastics production increased more than threefold over this quarter-century period? Is fracking, which has driven down the price of natural gas, solely responsible for this massive production increase?

Tiza Mafira: There are a number of factors at play here. Part of it is fracking, and another factor is that plastic products have become so diversified it has managed to enter every aspect of our lives. Sellers like to say customer is king, but the truth is that the marketer is king. The marketer can sell products that the customer does not actually need. In the case of single-use plastics, it is the constant supply of diversified plastic products that has caused a demand for it instead of the other way around.

“Plastics have already destroyed sea life.”
—Tiza Mafira

China Bans Recycling Imports, Leaving Nations to Face the Plastics Problem They’ve Created

China’s National Sword policy has meant that the country has stopped, since January 2018, importing most plastics for recycling, as the nation had processed half the world’s recyclable waste for the previous 25 years. In the United States, for example, this means that only plastics with the codes 1 and 2 are being recycled, leaving plastics 3 through 7 to be sent to landfills and incinerators. Will you explore the ramifications of China’s policy, including incineration and resultant air pollution fears, and how this policy may force countries to deal with the plastics problem at home as opposed to outsourcing it to other nations?

Tiza Mafira: What China’s policy has exposed is that no country has really succeeded in managing their waste. We, in the developing world, previously thought that developed countries had it all figured out—until we discovered their waste was getting shipped to China, and now since China closed its doors, that waste is getting shipped into our country. Even countries that have incineration systems have exported waste to Indonesia. Which makes us question how effective those incinerators are. On top of that, developed countries are now promoting incineration technologies and funding waste-to-energy incineration projects in Indonesia.

The investment cost is huge, and, at a time when the world is trying to move away from emissions, here is a project that belts out toxic emissions in the name of “waste management.” The petrochemical industries are fully supportive of these projects because they means that they do not need to cut back on plastics production. I say there are cheaper, more effective ways to deal with waste, and there are cheaper, more effective ways to generate renewable energy.

Multilayer Plastics Generally Cannot Be Recycled, Creating a Sustainability Quandary

Will you talk about the effects of multilayer packaging such as bubble wrap embedded inside a paper mailer? This kind of packaging, widely used by Amazon and other companies, creates confusion about whether people can even recycle this packaging.

Tiza Mafira: Recycling only works when the same material is processed together. So green bottles must be recycled with green bottles. A green bottle recycled with transparent bottles will contaminate the whole batch. Multilayer packaging is packaging made of different plastic materials stuck together. In developed countries, this is associated with sachets. You can’t really find sachets in the western hemisphere because they are not marketed there. The same company, producing the same product, will package the product differently for different consumers in different parts of the world.

Ironically, consumers who live in the part of the world that don’t have adequate recycling facilities receive the worst packaging (sachets). Can bubble wrap embedded in a paper mailer be separated from the paper by a simple tug? With sachets, the outer layer plastic and inner layer plastic is stuck together and impossible to separate. If it cannot be separated, it cannot be recycled.

Break Free From Plastic infographic - Fruit-Powered
This powerful and solutions-oriented infographic to the global plastics problem was produced by StoryOfPlastic.org.

What Are the Solutions to Plastic Pollution?

What is your vision for the world and by when with regard to plastics? Is the world—all life and the environment—going to survive the plastics plague?

Tiza Mafira: We need a reusable revolution. That is the only way we can survive. We cannot afford to pollute our world with more disposables, and we cannot keep extracting natural resources. This generates massive emissions and leads to resource depletion. We should already have everything we need right now, and that is by ensuring everything that we produce can be used and reused—and, at the end of its life, is recycled—an infinite number of times.

How to Stop Plastic Pollution

Tiza, many Fruit-Powered Magazine readers enjoy leading a fruitarian diet and are into connecting with nature and minimalism. Some might already eschew consumption of many products making use of single-use plastics. For those who want to do more to help with the global plastics problem, what do you suggest they do?

Tiza Mafira: Contribute to the reusable revolution as a consumer and as a professional. Support the businesses that are already doing this such as the bulk stores and the delivery models in which you can return the bottle and receive back your deposit. Start a reusable revolution in your home, office, school and hobby group.

Remember that everyone means something to someone, so that someone is the person you need to influence. It could be your daughter, spouse, parents or co-workers. Promoting changes through social media is fine, but the real change happens on the ground with the people physically closest to you.

Watch Tiza Mafira Lead the Indonesia Plastic Bag Diet Movement

Watch a Story of Plastic Interview With Tiza Mafira on the Indonesia Plastic Bag Diet Movement

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