Polluted Rivers as the Major Source of Marine Debris: A Study Case of Citarum River

The Problems of Marine Debris in Our Oceans 

Ocean plastic pollution has become a global phenomenon that threatens not only the marine ecosystem but also humans as the ultimate apex predator within the food chain.

Examples of marine debris that pollute our oceans. Source: solomonstarnews.

As many as 700 species of marine wildlife suffer from the negative impacts of marine debris, specifically plastic waste. These species range from seagrasses and algae to whale, seals, and turtles. Of the 700 species,  17% of them are categorized as threatened according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A penguin that suffered from being entangled in a plastic can holder

Even so, recent studies have provided new and significant insight as to how plastic waste finds its way to the ocean, which is through rivers. As a matter of fact, ocean plastic that comes from the ocean itself is only around 20% (for example discarded fishing net), whereas the rest 80% originate from the land.

A river whose surface is full of plastic. Source: www.cardiff.ac.uk

The total estimates of river plastics that enter the oceans range from 0.48 to 12.7 million metric tons, a figure that is equivalent to approximately 5.000 to 125.000 blue whales.  This is actually not that surprising when taking into consideration our society’s “fondness” of single-use plastic. This condition is then worsened by the lack of a proper and responsible waste management system to ensure that the waste will not end up polluting the environment.

Cutting the Riverine Plastic Emission

Knowledge of how plastic waste ends up in the oceans can serve as a valuable input to tackle the problem of plastic pollution itself.

Map of River Plastic Emissions from coastal communities. Quoted from BOI White Paper “River Plastic Pollution

Yep, if rivers are the main source of plastic waste that flows into the oceans, then intervening in the flow of these waste before they reach the ocean can become a strategic solution in the fight against global plastic pollution.

Similar findings on how rivers became the major source of plastic pollution that end up in the oceans. Source. Alliance to End Plastic Waste

Furthermore, some research suggests that the majority of this plastic pollution comes only from a fraction of rivers worldwide. Though further study needed to be done in order to validate these estimates, the key takeaway is that the amount of plastic emissions is not evenly distributed throughout the globe. In other words, specific regions, or even several individual rivers, can be identified as high plastic emitters compared to other places or rivers.

Citarum, One of the Most Polluted River in The World

In Indonesia, one example of a river that is most likely the source of plastic pollution and marine debris is the Citarum River

A clogged Citarum River. Credit: James Wendlinger

Citarum is the longest river in West Java province, around 297 kilometers, and disembogues into the Java sea

The Citarum River holds a key role for the livelihood of 27,5 million people in both West Java as well as the DKI Jakarta province. As a matter of fact, 80% of the drinking water of the citizens of Jakarta came from the river that runs through 12 districts in West Java.   

Ironically enough, Citarum is nominated as one of the dirtiest and most polluted rivers in the world. This “award” is given by the Blacksmith Institute, a non-profit organization based in New York and Green Cross, Switzerland.  

One of the reasons is due to the existence of 3.236 textile industries operating at the riverbanks of Citarum. According to West Java’s Environmental Agency, around 90% of them do not have a proper wastewater treatment plant. As a result, as much as 340.000 tons of liquid waste is disposed of into the Citarum River every day.  

Example of wastewater that was being directly thrown into the Citarum river and caused it to be heavily polluted. Photo credit: Donny Iqbal/Mongabay Indonesia

Moreover, in 2013, an investigation by environ¬≠mental action group Greenpeace found hazardous chemicals including cadmium, lead, and cobalt in the wastewater entering the Citarum (Post Magazine). 

In addition, at the end of 2017, the Kodam III Siliwangi survey team found that as many as 20.642 tons of organic and inorganic waste is thrown into the Citarum River. The river was then further polluted by a terrible addition of 35,5 tons of human feces and 56 tons of cattle dung per day (Rappler.com).

Just when we think things could not get any worse, they do. Balai Besar Wilayah Sungai Citarum (BBWSC) also found various medical waste in the Citarum River, namely HIV blood bags, used medical equipment, and even severed human body parts. Keep in mind that this “discovery” was long before the COVID-19 pandemic

One corner of the Citarum river that was polluted by both industrial waste and garbage. Photo credit: Donny Iqbal/Mongabay Indonesia

In response to the Citarum crisis, for the past 30 years, around 4,5 trillion Rupiah has been poured out to fund efforts in recovering the condition of Citarum River.

Some of the efforts involved manual waste-collection by around 7,000 soldiers who are deployed to various sections of the river. Similarly in Jakarta, over 4,000 workers are assigned in removing the litter from the Citarum River.

Non-government actors also perform some measures in regards to the heavily-polluted Citarum river, ranging from campaigns, research, and even installing waste-capture systems, like the Benioff Ocean Initiative

Unfortunately, the efforts that have so far been done are yet to be effective as it was unable to address the root of the problems, which was waste leakage from the land and the production of waste, especially plastic, itself.  

The Importance of Waste Reduction from The Source as well as Responsible Waste Management

In order to tackle the problem of river pollution and ultimately marine debris, we will need to “turn off the tap” on the abundant amount of waste, especially single-use plastics, that we are producing. 

Thus, while we’re busy cleaning up our oceans and rivers from plastic and other debris, we also need to address why is it that we produce so much waste in the first place. 

Waste Management Hierarchy

Cutting our waste production should be done both at the individual level and at the government level. Meaning that while individuals learn to switch to a less-waste lifestyle, governments should create and enforce laws that oblige industries and companies to cut the waste that they produced.  

Moreover, it is proven time and again that rivers became the main pathway for plastics and other land-based waste to end up in the oceans. Thus, the root of the problem that needs to be addressed is to prevent those waste from leaking into our rivers and waterways.  

Preventing land-based waste from entering rivers and oceans can be done by making sure that the waste is managed and recycled responsibly. Companies can take part in this effort by implementing Extended Producer Responsibility to make sure that their brand-labeled waste does not end up polluting the environment.

Likewise, consumers can do their part in managing their domestic waste by segregating and recycling their waste according to their categories.  How can we make sure that our waste is managed responsibly?

By using our Personal Waste Management service, your waste will be picked up in a segregated condition straight from your doorstep. No more worries about having your waste end up in the oceans.





The Benioff Ocean Initiative. (April 2019). River Plastic Pollution: Considerations for addressing the leading source of marine debris. Accessible at boi.ucsb.edu.

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