TROPODO, Indonesia – Waves of black smoke from chimneys rising above the village. The smell of burning plastic fills the air. Spots of black ash cover the floor. It's another day to make tofu.
More than 30 commercial kitchens in Tropodo, a village on the east side of Indonesia's main island, Java, fuel its tofu production by burning a mixture of paper and plastic waste, some of which shipped from the United States after the Americans threw it on. recycling boxes.
Backyard kitchens produce much of the region's tofu, a cheap protein-rich soy food that is an important part of the local diet. But the smoke and ashes produced by the burnt plastic have toxic and far-reaching consequences.
Egg testing by chickens in Tropodo, a village of 5,000 people, has found high levels of several dangerous chemicals, including dioxin – a pollutant known to cause cancer, birth defects and Parkinson's disease – according to report released this week by an alliance of Indonesian and international environmental groups.
The dioxin found in Tropodo is the end product in a chain of government misconduct, carelessness and negligence.
"They start burning early in the morning and go into the night," said Karnawi, 84, who lives near seven commercial plastic-burning kitchens. “It happens every day and the smoke is always in the air. It is hard for me to breathe. Like many Indonesians, Karnawi uses only one name.
An egg laid by one of Karnawi's chickens had one of the highest dioxin levels ever recorded in Asia, according to the report.
Dioxin levels found in this egg were second only to those near Bien Hoa in Vietnam, the former US air base that was a preparation area for the Vietnam War for dioxin-containing Agent Orange. The United States recently started 10 years, $ 390 million. cleaning in Bien Hoa, which remains heavily contaminated almost five decades after the war ended.
An adult who eats only one egg such as that taken from the Karnawi chicken coop would exceed the United States daily safety limit by almost 25 times and the European Food Safety Authority's strictest standard by 70 times.
Eggs are commonly used to test for contamination because chickens effectively sample the soil as they forage and toxins accumulate in their eggs.
"These graphical findings illustrate the dangers of plastics to human health and should lead lawmakers to ban the combustion of plastic waste, combat environmental contamination and tightly control imports," said Lee Bell, consultant for the International Pollutant Disposal Network and co-author of the report.
The study was conducted by four environmental groups: Ecoton and the Indonesia-based Nexus3 Foundation; Arnika, based in Prague; and the International Pollutant Disposal Network [IPEN], a global network dedicated to the elimination of toxic pollutants.
The toxins found in Tropodo's soil begin with Westerners believing they are doing a good thing for the environment – sorting out their waste for recycling. Much of this waste is shipped abroad, including to Indonesia, where it is combined with local waste for processing.
But instead of turning into new consumer goods like wool jackets and sneakers, much of the trash is unusable for recycling and instead is thrown into the furnaces that feed Tropodo's tofu boilers.
"This plastic is collected from consumers in the United States and other countries and burned to produce tofu in Indonesia," said Yuyun Ismawati, co-founder of the Nexus3 Foundation and co-author of the study.
The amount of foreign waste coming to Indonesia increased two years ago after China halted its imports of waste.
In East Java, 11 paper mills operate south of Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, and import waste paper for recycling.
Some unscrupulous foreign handlers throw unwanted plastic into the developing world, including up to 50% plastic in their alleged paper shipments, Yuyun said. Local businesses profit by accepting shipments.
Much of the plastic is undesirable, low quality material and Indonesia does not have a good way of disposing of it.
After removing the best materials for recycling, most companies send their remaining waste to Bangun, a village known for its pickers who hunt for valuable items and material worth recycling.
In Bangun, piles of trash over five feet high fill every vacant lot. About 2,400 people live in the village and almost all families are involved in the waste business.
Garbage collectors say they can say that some consignments came from the United States because of the writing of the items they classify. Still indicating the source of the waste, waste pickers say they sometimes find accidentally discarded US dollars and broken beverage bottles with distinctively American labels, such as Jack Daniels.
The final stop for the least sought after trash is Tropodo and its tofu makers.
Trucks transport leftover paper and plastic every 20 miles from Bangun to Tropodo every day and drop their cargo out of tofu kitchens.
"People need it as fuel for tofu factories," said a truck driver, Fadil, 38, when he dumped his cargo on a village street. He said he has been delivering waste paper and plastic to the village's tofu makers for 20 years.
Open burning of garbage – including plastic – is widespread throughout Indonesia. The practice is illegal, but the law is rarely enforced.
Environmental activists say Indonesian President Joko Widodo has neglected health concerns in pursuit of economic development and urged him to deal with toxic contamination, including air pollution and mercury contamination.
In July, Rosa Vivien Ratnawati, Director General of Waste Management at the Ministry of the Environment, visited Tropodo and acknowledged that burning plastic was dangerous, but made no attempt to stop it.
She told reporters she would investigate how toxic smoke could be controlled.
"If plastic is used as a fuel, it's not a problem, but pollution must be managed," she said.
Since then, the government has not taken any action.
Contacted last week by The New York Times, Ratnawati declined to discuss the issue and referred questions to the director general of environmental pollution, Karliansyah. He didn't answer The Times questions.
Many residents of Tropodo say they hate plastic burning but have no power to stop it.
Tofu makers – a big employer in Tropodo – started to burn plastic from wood many years ago.
Kitchens work every day, and when there is little wind, acrid smoke hangs over the village like a poisonous mist.
Nanang Zainuddin, 37, runs a small kitchen on the corner of Karanawi chicken coop. He says he burns plastic because it is cheaper, sometimes less than a tenth of the cost of burning wood.
The tofu manufacturing process begins by soaking and grinding the soybeans, placing them in a concrete tub and injecting steam from a plastic-fired boiler.
One worker puts the boiler and sticks plastic in the fire, while others cook the soybeans and remove the pulp.
Nanang said he discards plastic ashes by burying some and scattering more into the ground to create a level surface. He also gives some to the neighbors so they can scatter it around the soil around their homes.
"We are now standing on the ashes," he said as chickens and chicks scratched food near their feet.
"Dioxin can come from anywhere," he added, "but if the government wants to solve it, they'll be welcome."
Former Tropodo Mayor Ismail, 50, a tofu producer, banned the use of plastic as fuel in 2014. But the ban lasted only a few months before the burning began again.
His decree has been ignored ever since.
"There are a lot of tofu makers here and most of them don't care," said Ismail, who mainly uses wood and some plastic as fuel. “Tofu makers count only profit, profit, profit. They do not count the disadvantages created by this company. "
Dera Menra Sijabat contributed reporting.