True of False? Debunking Myths about Waste

Almost everyone is familiar with myths, which according to Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia V (The Indonesian Dictionary), is defined as the story of a nation about ancient gods and heroes, which includes interpretation regarding the origin of the universe, humans, and the nation, itself as well as profound meanings expressed in a supernatural way.

The definition of myths that exist in today’s society are not limited by stories that revolve around gods and heroes, but also those that revolve in our daily lives, be it our relations with other people, the way we do things, and even myths about waste and how to dispose of them.

The myths that continue to exist in our society (no matter how irrational it sounds) often perpetuate negative behaviors, especially for the environment. That is why it is important to clarify and debunk such myths, whose presence only add unnecessary burden to the existing environmental problems that we are facing

Such myths about waste are namely:

1. Myth: Disposable Diapers Should be Discarded into the River to Prevent the Baby from Crying 

Fact: Disposable Diapers are Difficult to be Recycled and Might Seriously Harm the Environment  

In East and Central Java, like Surabaya, there exists a myth called sutelen, which is a local belief that a baby’s soul will become one with their clothes, including their diapers. As a result, the way we managed diapers is believed to be affecting the baby as well. For example, if the used diapers are burnt, the baby’s soul will also feel hot due to it being burned and caused the baby to cry more often.

Hence, the method that is used to ward off this myth is to discard the used diapers into bodies of water (usually rivers). By discarding the diapers into the water, then the babies’ bum is believed to remain “cool”, which will prevent the baby from crying too often.

The suleten myth also became the reason why local people choose to avoid disposing used diapers into the landfill since they feared that the diapers will end up being burned.

Ribuan popok dan sampah lain dibuang dipinggiran sungai di Sleman, Jogja. Foto: Tommy Apriando/ Mongabay Indonesia Thousands of used diapers and other types of waste are discarded in a riverbank in Sleman, Jogja. Photo credit: Tommy Apriando/ Mongabay Indonesia

Disposable Diapers that Massively Pollute Bodies of Water 

The fact is, used diapers that are discarded into rivers possess some serious negative effects. A 2017 research by the World Bank revealed that diapers became the second-highest marine debris in terms of its volume, which amounts to 21%, whereas the highest number of marine debris is dominated by organic waste (44%).

In Indonesia itself, the sutelen myth worsened the problem of used diapers that are being discarded in rivers throughout Java. Prigi Arisandi as the Director of Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (Ecoton) explained that diapers waste is found in big rivers such as Brantas, Bengawan Solo, Citarum, and Progo River.

Sampah popok yang berhasil dikumpul oleh Tim Ecoton di Sungai Karang Pilang, Surabaya. Sumber: Themmy Doaly/Mongabay Used diapers that are managed to be collected by the Ecoton team in Karang Pilang river, Surabaya. Source: Themmy Doaly/Mongabay

In the watershed of Brantas river, for example, based on a survey by Ecoton in July last year, it was estimated that around 3 million used diapers are discarded into the river every day.  This is alarming but not really surprising when taking into consideration that there are around 750,000 babies who live around the watershed of the Brantas river (Based on a 2013 data from the Central Bureau of Statistics) who need to change diapers at least around 4 to 9 times a day.

There is also a Diapers Evacuation Brigade (BEP) that was formed by Ecoton in order to tackle the problem of used diapers in the Brantas rivers. The brigade manages to collect around 300 kilograms of used diapers within just two hours at one of the bridges in Brantas river. This is because a bridge becomes the most “preferred” spot for people to throw their diapers into the river.

Ecoton had also conducted a river clean up in Surabaya river in July 2019, and around 60% of the waste was diapers. The total amount of used diapers that were collected from the waste trap that was put in the river are around 380 sheets of used diapers from various brands.

Waste from single-use diapers from various brands that were collected by Ecoton. Source: Ecoton

The Danger of Disposable Diapers 

Disposable diapers are categorized as residual waste that is difficult to be recycled. One of the reasons is due to its composition. Disposable diapers contain a chemical compound called Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP) by 42%, which will change into a gel-like substance when exposed to water.  If such a substance is disintegrated in the water, the chemical compound can be harmful to the environment, namely causing a change in fish’s hormone.

In Brantas river, for instance, from 2011 until 2013, around 80%-85% of the total fish population is female when it should have been a balanced number between the male and female population. Moreover, based on a study done by the team from Universitas Brawijaya and the University of Le Havre Perancis in 2013, as much as 20% of the fish in the downstream area of the Brantas river suffered from intersex (two sexes in one body). This phenomenon was then linked to the number of disposable diapers that were being thrown into the river.

Disposable diapers are also dangerous because it carries a fecal pathogen that might pollute the aquatic ecosystem, the source of water, and also disrupt the food chain.

2. Myth: It’s Okay to Discard Fruit Peels into the Open Nature because It Will Decompose by Itself 

Fact: Organic Waste such as Fruit Peels Take A Long Time to be Decomposed 

Colin Czerwinski/ Unsplash Photo credit: Colin Czerwinski/ Unsplash

When we are engaged in outdoor activities such as picnic, camping, or even mountain hiking, fruits such as apple and banana become one of the most practical, healthy, and less-waste snacks to be taken along during the trip.

Furthermore, many people even took the liberty to throw (or thinking of throwing) their fruit peels in the open nature instead of into the waste bin. Such an act is often based on a misleading assumption that unlike inorganic waste such as plastic and styrofoam, fruit peels are organic waste and thus can decompose on its own.

Unfortunately, that is just half true. Organic waste such as orange and banana peels can indeed decompose on its own, but the process is far from being short. In fact, it took around a couple of years for the decomposition process to be completed. A similar principle also applies to apple core, which takes around 8 weeks to decompose. The decomposition process is also affected by various geographical factors such as weather, rainfall, and also elevation.

Kulit jeruk memakan waktu sekitar 2 tahun untuk bisa terurai. Sumber: Ana Tofan/Unsplash Orange peel can take up to 2 years to be decomposed. Source: Ana Tofan/Unsplash

In addition, the decomposition process is not always assisted by organisms such as insects or rodents. Apart from the fact that those fruits are not in their dietary menu, certain fruits like orange peel contain natural insect repellent, which causes insects to avoid them instead.

Besides, if people saw that there are fruit peels being scattered around, they will most likely engage in the same behavior because they think that there is nothing wrong with it. If things keep going on like this, then natural destinations such as mountains and forests will be polluted by organic waste, which will not only ruin the beautiful sight but also cause negative impacts on the environment.

So What Should We Do to Our Fruit Peels?

The answer is actually simple: throw them to the waste bin according to its category, which is organic waste. If you cannot find any waste bin, then bring it with you and prepare some separate trash bags instead. It will be even better to bring home your organic waste and turn it into compost (if you already have a composter at home or planning to have one). Do not also forget to cut the fruit peels into smaller pieces to make the decomposition process easier.

The underlying principle is clear: whatever it is that we decided to bring with us when visiting a certain place, especially things that will most likely become waste, we should never leave it behind. Keep those places clean by not leaving anything behind, except maybe your footprint.

3. Myth: Throwing Our Waste into the Waste Bin is More than Enough 

Fact: Besides Throwing Our Waste into the Waste Bin, Segregating our Waste into Different Categories is also Very Important

Based on research by Sustainable Waste Indonesia in 2019, the total amount of waste In Indonesia that is recycled is only 3%, while the rest of them end up in the landfill. One of the reasons why Indonesia has very little recycling rate is because there is so much waste that is still being mixed, especially between organic and inorganic waste.

Contoh sampah yang menumpuk dan tidak terpilah.Sumber: Donny Iqbal/Mongabay Indonesia Example of how waste is being discarded in a mixed condition.Source: Donny Iqbal/Mongabay Indonesia

In fact, the majority of Indonesian people have not yet segregated their waste. A survey done by Katadata Insight Center in 5 big cities of Indonesia revealed that less than half of the respondents segregate their waste, which is around 49,2%. From that figure, 77,6% segregate their waste into two categories only, which are dry and wet waste.

Taking into consideration such data, and while keeping in mind the condition of the waste crisis in Indonesia that is getting alarming, the act of throwing our waste into the waste bin is far from being enough. If the vision of a Waste-Free Indonesia 2025 is to be realized, then the Indonesian people and government need to take more drastic measures in reducing, segregating, and managing their waste.

Segregating waste is actually a process that is relatively simple. By learning little by little about the types of waste that exist, and also by providing separate waste containers that are divided into several categories, it will not be long until you and your family members adopt a new habit of segregating your waste starting from your own home.

That way, you have already helped to increase the waste segregation rate in Indonesia as well as help in reducing the amount of residual waste that ends up in the landfill.

Make Sure that Your Waste is Recycled Responsibly 

One of the most challenging thing about practicing waste segregation in Indonesia is the fact that the conventional waste management system still collects and transport our waste in a mixed state, thus making the segregation effort futile.

Therefore, it is important to ensure that the waste you have segregated will be recycled in a responsible way. One way to ensure it is to give your inorganic waste to Waste4Change in order for it to be managed and recycled optimally instead of ending up in landfills. Giving your waste to Waste4Change can be done in two ways, one is to send it to the Waste4Change’s office in Bekasi, and the other is to drop your inorganic waste into the nearest Waste4Change’s dropbox.

Let’s Debunk Misleading Myths for a Waste-Free Indonesia 

Not all myths are worth to be kept for generations, especially myths that tend to mislead and possess harmful effects on the environment. Let’s start opening our hearts and mind to the factual and existing conditions of the waste crisis that Indonesia is currently facing. Be a part of the solutions to debunk myths, segregate our waste, and ensure that those waste are recycled responsibly.


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