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Nina indonesia climate activist
Nina marches alongside other activists in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in light of the Climate Strike on November 6, 2021, to protest the plastic pollution problem. The protest was a part of an international climate strike amid COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, between 31 October to 12 November. Photo: Prigi Arisandi

“We have to be brave”: This 14-year-old Indonesian activist wants to be president

Aeshnina Azzahra Aqilani, or Nina, is like many Indonesian teenagers. She enjoys streaming movies, from cartoons to Hollywood teen films. When she’s not reading comics and novels, she is often working to save the planet.

Nina is an advocate for solving waste problems in her home region of Gresik Regency, East Java, Indonesia and other Indonesian provinces. She wrote letters to world leaders and had the chance to meet prominent figures like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

She draws inspiration from Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, which ignited climate strikes from youth all over the world. “If Greta can do it, I can do it too,” she adds.

Dressed in a crisp cream overall dress over a yellow plaid shirt, Nina spoke to around a dozen adults after the screening of “Girls for Future” on November 8 in Glasgow, Scotland, during the UN Climate Change conference (COP26).

The film recounts the stories of Nina and three other young girls aged between 11 and 14, who represent a new generation directly affected by climate change.

“I want all children to know that we have the right to live in a safe, clean and healthy environment. So we have to be brave to speak up,” said Nina after the screening.

Childhood among waste

Nina’s journey began in 2019 when she saw a pile of trash as she was walking around with her father, who is the founder of the wetland conservation study group ECOTON in Indonesia. When they approached the pile, she observed that many of the waste came from Germany, the United States and other foreign countries.

“I was surprised. Why are they here?” she recalled.

She then learned that Western countries have been sending waste to her region in the form of “paper boxes” for nearby paper mills. She said that these boxes contained plastic waste on the inside but looked like they were made of paper from the outside in order to pass the border check at the port.

After paper mills use the imported paper waste to produce new paper, they would dump the remaining plastic waste to nearby areas, including Nina’s village. The villagers then sort the recyclable plastic waste and sell it to plastic recycling factories to make plastic pellets that would be exported to China

However, recycling plastic presents numerous hazards. In her region, one would need to chop them into little pieces, wash it with river water and discharge the wastewater into the river, polluting it in the process.

In addition, Nina said the non-recyclable plastic is sent to a factory to produce tofu. As a result, the tofu would contain dioxins, a toxic compound produced as a by-product in some manufacturing processes.

According to Nina, chickens would also eat from the ground where toxic ashes from the plastic fall to the ground, causing unsafe levels of dioxins to contaminate the eggs in her village

“There’s a really, really, really big impact. The waste is from the western countries, the rich countries, the developed countries. And the developing countries, the poor countries, feel the impacts. So that’s unfair,” said Nina.

A global problem

Nina’s story only shows a glimpse of a larger waste import problem. A 2019 report published by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) explained that China’s decision to shut its doors to plastic waste imports in the beginning of 2018 “threw the global plastic recycling industry into chaos”.

Malaysia took in more imported waste than any other nation while Thailand had the largest percentage increase in plastic waste imports of any country in the world at over 1000 percent, GAIA found. Indonesia’s imports also increased at the end of 2018

“By refusing to be the world’s dumping ground, China’s policy—and the fallout that resulted from it—revealed the true cost of rampant consumption, plastic production, and the problems and limitations of recycling as a solution to a world suffocating in its own plastic,” read the executive summary of the report.

GAIA claimed that wealthy countries had grown accustomed to exporting their plastic problems. It is treated as a solution to plastic waste, but in reality a scant 9 percent of the plastic the world has produced since 1950 has been recycled, quoting a 2017 study.

As shown in Nina’s story, GAIA mentioned that the global plastic waste trade puts people and communities at risk, has long-term impacts on health and the environment, and enables the continued production of new plastics and their unchecked consumption.

Despite such consequences, top corporations are still polluting the world with plastics. The latest Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) Global Brand Audit reports that Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo are ranked as the world’s top plastic polluters for the 4th consecutive year.

Over 11,000 volunteers in 45 countries carried out global beach cleanups to identify the most common plastic polluters in BFFP’s recent report.

These ranks are despite these big brands’ campaigns on plastic pollution, such as Coca-Cola’s pledge to collect one bottle for every one sold and Pepsi’s recent voluntary commitments to halve the use of virgin plastic by 2030. Unilever rises in the ranks to be the world’s third-worst plastic polluter despite being a COP26 sponsor.

Youth is speaking up

BFFP Youth Ambassador Ahmed Elhadj Taieb said younger generations are set to inherit the climate and plastic crises exacerbated by these polluting corporations who do not have concrete and real measures to avert these crises.

“The plastic industry’s expansion plans will contribute to locking the world into a catastrophic high-emissions trajectory, hurting our chances of reaching below 1.5 degrees Centigrade. We cannot continue with business-as-usual anymore, so we are taking action to hold these corporate polluters accountable,” said Taieb.

BFFP is not alone in taking action. After attending COP26, Nina is planning to hold an “imported plastic waste museum” to educate the public about the issue. She also plans to further develop her “river warrior” movement that she has started with her sibling since 2019 that aims to save the Brantas River in East Java from plastic pollution.

In the long run, Nina strives to first become Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister to eventually become the President of Indonesia. To achieve this, she said she needs to learn more about the environment and law while staying consistent in her steps to achieve her ambitions.

“[I want] to grow myself to be a better minister, a better government so I can lead a better Indonesia,” said Nina.

Made Anthony Iswara
Made is a data journalist who strives to integrate research, communication and development economics to advocate policies. He has won 5 journalism awards and is among the five winners that won Best Article for the 2020 EU4Wartawan Competition organized by the European Union.