Jakarta. Indonesians often pride themselves in the fact that their country's waters contain the largest marine mega-biodiversity in the world.
But in 2015, researchers of the University of Georgia listed the country as the world's second-largest source of mismanaged plastic waste produced by populations living within 50 kilometers of the coast.
China tops the list, while the Philippines is in third place.
According to this study, Indonesia produces approximately 3.2 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste annually, with up to 1.29 million tons of this ending up in the ocean.
"We have very serious problems with plastic waste," Helen Dewi Kirana, fashion designer and creative director of women's ready-to-wear label NES, said at a press conference in Jakarta on Aug. 15.
"And yet, people are not really aware of it, nor willing to take action."
Enormous amounts of plastic waste can be seen on almost every beach in the country.
"During every beach cleanup, we always gather huge piles of plastic bottles, straws, sachets and plastic bags," said Diah Bisono, an activist at Cinta Laut Indonesia, or Love for Indonesian Seas.
Many of these plastic items may take up to 500 years to fully degrade.
"In the meanwhile, these plastics will degrade into microplastics and then nanoplastics," said Dr. Amaranila Drijono, a dermatologist, environmentalist and founder of Mata Cinta, or Eyes of Love.
In the ocean, nanoplastics, which are smaller than 0.03 millimeter in size, act like sponges that absorb toxic waste from seawater, such as arsenic, mercury and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT.
"Plankton often mistake these nanoplastics as food and eat them. In turn, fish will eat the plankton," Amaranila said.
According to a 2017 study by Sweden's Lund University, fish that consume plankton containing nanoplastics will become ill, lethargic and lose their appetite.
"And when we consume such fish, the nanoplastics are transferred to our bodies, where it may cause hormonal cancers, such as breast, ovary and prostate cancers," the doctor said.
To address this problem, Helen launched Jakarta Tanpa Sedotan, or Jakarta Without Plastic Straws, earlier this month, in collaboration with Cinta Laut Indonesia and Mata Cinta.
"I think it's the right movement to start in Jakarta," the fashion designer said. "People in Jakarta have this habit of meeting up in cafés and restaurants. Now we're encouraging them to avoid using plastic straws for drinks."
While plastic straws may not seem to contribute much to the total volume of plastic waste in the oceans, it becomes quite impressive when added up.
According to a survey by Divers Clean Action, a community of expert divers in Indonesia, plastic straws currently make up a significant portion of the pollution at some of the top diving sites in the archipelago.
Indonesia uses more than 93.2 million plastic straws per day, and if these were strung together, they would almost cover the distance between Jakarta and Mexico.
The total length of plastic straws used in a week would amount to 117,449 kilometers, which is nearly triple the earth's circumference.
"Plastic straws are a convention of the modern lifestyle," Helen said. "In fact, it is possible for us to enjoy our drinks without the use of any plastic straws at all."
Helen has always been concerned about the environment. During an excursion last year to Baduy, a traditional village in West Java, she noticed huge piles of litter left behind by tourists.
This prompted her to start the Clean Indonesia Movement. Their first program included regular cleanups of the village and teaching locals to separate the trash into different categories. Residents can then turn organic waste into compost and deliver the rest to a waste bank for recycling.
"Now, we already have one waste bank in Baduy," the 51-year-old fashion designer said.
With Jakarta Tanpa Sedotan, Helen seeks to create awareness, through a direct campaign and social media, of the harmful impact plastic straws have on the environment.
"There are more than 10,000 NES lovers," the fashion designer said, referring to her fashion brand's followers on Instagram. "And I will act as a megaphone that shouts out to them about the impact plastic straws have on our environment. With continuous and consistent efforts, I believe those 10,000 will raise awareness among another 100,000, who will then raise awareness among 1,000,000 more people."
"In time, the movement will grow larger and hopefully become 'Indonesia Tanpa Sedotan,'" the mother of four said.
Jakarta Tanpa Sedotan Festival
Helen will hold the Jakarta Tanpa Sedotan Festival in Kemang, South Jakarta, on Sept. 16.
There will be a bazaar where recycled products and items made from reused plastic straws will be for sale.
Environmental groups will also give presentations on the harm plastic straws cause in the environment.
"On that day, we'll also have a parade in Kemang, visiting some restaurants in the area and encouraging them to refrain from providing plastic straws with their drinks," Helen said.
But what about those creamy drinks that require the use of a straw?
"Those still needing straws should use one of the reusable straws available in the market," Helen said.
During the launch event, Helen also introduced glass straws, produced in a collaboration between NES and Mata Cinta.
"We produce them at a factory for medical products in Bandung [West Java]," Mata Cinta founder Amaranila said. "Therefore, these straws have the standardized quality of test tubes."
The glass straws are 23 centimeters long and about a millimeter wide. Each one is sold with a special cleaning brush, in a beautiful batik pouch Helen specially designed.
"Because they are made of glass, these straws are suitable for Indonesia's hot, humid climate," Amaranila said. "They also come with their own brushes, so they can be thoroughly and properly cleaned after every use."
The straws are available for purchase on Mata Cinta's Instagram account for Rp 50,000 ($3.50) each.
"This is purely a nonprofit project," Helen said. "All proceeds will be channeled back to the campaign."