About an hour from Indonesia's second-biggest
city, Surabaya, the village of Bangun is being
swallowed by plastic waste.
In the front yards of homes on almost every
spare piece of land, piles and piles of garbage
- sent here from all over the world including Australia.
Brought in by recycling companies which pay
the people of Bangun to help sort it.
Walking around it doesn't take long for the
Aussie brands to just sort of pop up out of
the rubbish. They're so familiar and you just
can't help but think of everyone back home
carefully separating their garbage, only for
it to end up here.
It's just bizarre.
For the children of Bangun, it is just another
place to play.
For their parents, it's a livelihood.
We're doing this for our children, to pay
for their schools, to pay for all kinds of
expenses. The people here depend on this recycling
Supiyati has been sorting waste for eight
I found a gold tooth once. I sold it for $80!
She now employs four pickers who are paid
around $4 a day.
At regular intervals, trucks from the nearby
pulp and paper factory come to tip their loads.
Bangun's pickers get to work separating the
Whatever can be sold for recycling is tied
up in bundles and taken away.
Anything considered worthless is brought to
the banks of the river and set alight.
We're exporting a bit more than four million
tonnes a year, on average and about 20 per
cent of that is going to Indonesia at the moment.
Dr Joe Pickin uses customs data to track Australian recycling.
He says for years it has been cheaper
for Australia to send it off-shore.
We've had a bonanza. Recycling has been so
cheap. They have been paying us for our recycling
so well that it has been a bonanza for us
financially, but now we have got to cope with
it, we'll have to pay a bit more. We are going
to have to sort it more.
We are, in effect, exporting pollution.
Segung was born in Bangun and today is one
of the few people here not involved in the
He fishes well out of town these days, but
wants to show us the spot where he used to
throw his nets.
Well, we've just arrived at this lake that
Pak Segung used to swim in as a kid and it
just stinks, a really acrid smell that gets
stuck in the back of your throat.
It is just no good at all.
Segung says the run-off from the factory which
processes recycled paper has killed his
When I was a boy, the water was clean in this
area. We could swim, play with our friends,
it was all nature, but no one can play in
the river anymore because the water is polluted
from the paper factories.
He believes all that plastic is making the
I can't tell you for sure if they actually
died because of the pollution, but many of
my friends died young.
The people in the cities of Solo and Yogyakarta,
they die of old age, but not here.
Microplastic is very dangerous for our body.
This is domestic waste because you can find
a lot of the kind of plastic.
All the people of Surabaya drink from this
river so there will be inside our body, our
blood. It has become a carcinogenic matter
Since China closed the door on all imported
waste, throwing the world's recyclers into
chaos, more and more plastic is being smuggled
here among of shipments of paper.
So these businesses in China were talking
all this stuff, they were sorting it out,
the residual waste management was poor, there
was lots of pollution to do with this process
and although the businesses want it, the government
has just said no, we don't want this anymore.
That sent it to other countries and now those
other countries, they are starting to close
the doors as well.
Now, Indonesia has had enough.
This week, customs officers rejected 210 tonnes
of Australian paper waste which was contaminated
with plastic, electronics, dirty nappies and
All eight containers are being sent back to
I think in the end, the appropriate response
is to say, "Okay, well, sorry about that,"
and we have to start cleaning it up on shore.
It is not sustainable. They don't want it
anymore. The writing is on the wall, even
though it is still happening, we've got to
fix it up.
So, has the whole world.
Very few we spoke to here want the rivers
of recycled waste to stop.
Picking plastic, they believe, is their only
shot at a better life for their kids.
It's important that my children don't end
up like their parents. That's all I want.
When Indonesia announced it was returning eight shipping containers of Australian waste, it was an example of the failings of the global recycling system.
Earlier this year, China slammed its door on foreign waste, and other countries are following suit.
Now here in Australia, a lot of people are questioning what to put into their recycling bins and where it might end up.
Indonesia correspondent David Lipson reports.
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