Indonesia, by some studies the second-largest emitter of plastics waste to the oceans after China, is taking a serious look at plastic taxes to try to get a handle on the problem.
The plastics industry in Indonesia objects. In a debate echoed around the world, it argues that the central problem is not plastic, but rather that the government has not set up effective waste management systems.
The question — how best to deal with the huge increases in the amount of plastic waste? — is not unique to Indonesia.
But Indonesia is among the most impacted countries in the world. The question its government is posing is this: If the growing use of plastics is flooding our existing, inadequate waste collection and recycling systems, why shouldn't the industry pay something to help improve that situation?
Studies are showing big increases in the amount of plastics in the oceans.
The plastics industry trade associations globally echo what the Indonesian industry said. They note that a majority of scientific studies say plastics get in the oceans because of poor waste management practices and lack of recycling.
Don't blame plastic, they say. Blame poor waste management. A good point in crafting solutions.
But still, here's where the "blame poor waste management" argument comes up short: You still need money to pay for the better waste collection and recycling systems that everyone agrees are needed.
In a story headlined that companies "refuse to take blame for waste," the Indonesian Olefin, Aromatic and Plastic Industry Association argued that taxing plastic would, in the long run, be counterproductive.
By hurting the industry — particularly its many small manufacturers — and damaging the investment climate in the country, the association argues that the government would be making it harder to create jobs and wealth.
But, on the flip side, there is an economic risk to doing nothing about plastics waste. Indonesia is worried about harm to its big tourism industry (think Bali's beaches) from waste and pollution. And studies are finding microplastics in fish in markets in Indonesia, making it potentially a public health issue.
One of challenges globally on plastic ocean pollution is that developing countries in Asia are the biggest sources, but they're also some of the places struggling the most to pay for better waste management. As a result, there's a major focus on building waste infrastructure in Southeast Asia.
The global plastics industry, including U.S. business groups and companies, are part of a $150 million effort with environmental NGOs to develop best practices in Asia for local governments to improve collection of waste plastics.
It seems like there's potential for some valuable work to come out of that effort.
But I think that even that effort is sidestepping the question of who pays. There seems to be universal agreement on all sides that what's needed are improvements in waste collection and recycling.
I think part of the reason the argument that industry should pay more makes sense to me is because I lived in China for eight years, and I've been to a lot of plastic trade shows in Asia.
I saw up close how the Asian industry is growing faster than anywhere in the world, and how local demand for more plastic, in everything from food packaging to automobiles, draws in companies from around the world looking to profit.
That's business. As people's lives improve in those countries, they're going to use more plastics. The pressure on the plastics industry exists because plastics has been very successful as a material.
But if industry is making more money because of rising plastics consumption in those countries — and at times at these shows people could be positively gleeful about projections for rising plastics consumption — then turning to the plastics industry for some help with the funding for cleanups seems fair.
Of course, taxes must be effective. Money needs to be spent towards its intended purpose.
But as it stands right now, too often in the debates about plastic waste around the world, the industry gets the economic benefit of selling more plastics products, but too much of the environmental, social and public health costs of pollution get pushed on to others.