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Swietenia Puspa Lestari combats marine waste with data and collaboration

04 Dec 2020

Swietenia Puspa Lestari combats marine waste with data and collaboration

Winner of the 2020 Outstanding Young Alumni Award

Marine environmentalist Swietenia Puspa Lestari has witnessed the devastating impact of waste on marine life off the northern coast of Jakarta, where she grew up and fell in love with the ocean.

Along with her fellow scuba divers, Tenia, as she is known, has tried to do her part for the seas of Kepulauan Seribu by bringing trash collection bags when diving. But over the years, marine waste increased to an alarming level, and 25-year-old Tenia became frustrated.

"My father said to me 'you won't change anything if you are only protesting. If you want to change the system, go inside, see what needs to be changed, what the obstacles are, and what needs to be improved'," said the winner of the 2020 Australian Alumni Award in the Outstanding Young Alumni category.

Her father's advice encouraged her to seek a volunteering opportunity in marine conservation. But she did not find any organisation focusing on marine pollution and small islands. She turned to her diving friends.

"I felt there was a need to have an organisation to accelerate solutions for tackling marine pollution because 80% of marine waste comes from land,” said Tenia, who majored in Environmental Engineering for her undergraduate degree at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) in West Java.

“But since such organisations did not exist at that time, I thought I would set up my own community.”

Marine waste, mainly plastic waste, has become one of Indonesia's urgent environmental issues. According to a report by the Indonesian National Plan Action Partnership (NPAP) released in April 2020, Indonesia generates around 6.8 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, which is growing by 5% annually. The flow of plastic waste into Indonesia's waterways and the ocean is forecast to grow by 30% between 2017 and 2025, from 620,000 tonnes per year to an estimated 780,000 tonnes annually.

In December 2015, Tenia and her two friends – a marine biologist and her senior at ITB  –  founded Divers Clean Action (DCA). At first, their primary mission was collecting data and networking with other diving institutions to carry out a marine clean-up.

DCA used the data to draft various programs, from workshops to training. In the five years since it was established, DCA has run various programs aiming to raise public awareness and prevent waste from being dumped into the sea.

Tenia and her team collaborate with women from coastal communities for waste recycling and upgrading existing waste banks to more sustainable methods. In Thousand Islands, DCA has collaborated with 3,000 residents to recycle their garbage and participate in a social entrepreneurship program through waste banks.

"The garbage that they collected can be turned into marketable products or sent to big companies to be included in their business system," said Tenia.

In 2017, DCA launched the Indonesia Youth Marine Debris Summit (IYMDS). The program, which has become a regular event, gathers youth from across the country to receive training on marine pollution, project management and social media.

As an organisation, DCA has grown as well. Tenia now leads 12 full-timers and a network of 1,500 volunteers across Asia. DCA's other programs are clean-up diving for volunteers and eco-tourism.

"When we started it (DCA), we started with something fun to do. If you start a movement with something serious, it may be more difficult to grow. If it starts as a hobby, you will love to do it. Even if you have to pay to do your hobby, you won't mind because it's fun," said Tenia.

Her career as a marine conservationist seemed predestined. In 2003, when she was 9 years old, her father was assigned as the head of Kepulauan Seribu National Park. Every weekend and school holidays, Tenia visited her father.

When she was in Thousand Islands, she tagged along when her father sailed to the small islands in the area for his work, which included empowering communities to protect the environment, and developing eco-tourism. She also met scientists and university students who came to see her father for research in Thousand Islands.

"My father wanted me to become a civil servant like him. However, I was more attracted to his work in the environment," she said.

Tenia’s work in marine conservation has also been recognised internationally. In 2017, she represented Indonesia at the United Nations Climate Change to speak about youth involvement in marine issues. And in late 2019, Tenia was also invited by the Barack and Michelle Obama Foundation to attend the Obama Foundation Leaders Forum in Kuala Lumpur.

This year, she was named in 'Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2020' in the category of Social Entrepreneurs. Last year, she was named as one of BBC's 100 inspiring and influential women. Both awards were for her work with coastal communities to help reduce marine waste.

Her determination led to an Australia Awards Scholarship last year, funded by the Australian government. The Short Term Award on "Tackling Marine Pollution through Recycling" at Griffith University was a two-week short course examining marine pollution in Indonesia and Australia in terms of the scale of the problem, policy settings, commercial activities and community responses to awareness-raising campaigns.

During the short course, Tenia’s main project was, set up by DCA with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and the University of Padjajaran in West Java. Established in 2016, is a platform for volunteers to take part in collecting data on marine waste. So far, the initiative has collected more than 576 reports of data from across the country through crowdsourcing. Volunteers can download a technical guideline on how to take samples of marine waste on the beach and underwater. And they can also input their data into DCA’s database, where DCA will summarize and report the data to stakeholders every year.

During the two-weeks in Australia, Tenia met with experts in marine pollution, officials from local government and other institutions, the private sector and non-government organisations.

"The program opened an opportunity for me to collaborate with other alumni in Indonesia,” she said. “I also learned about discussion methods and best practices that I can apply in Indonesia.”

Tenia recently collaborated on a webinar with Professor Sharyn Rundle-Thiele from Griffith University, who was her mentor in the short course. The webinar discussed how to treat plastic waste during the coronavirus pandemic.

Stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of COVID-19 have increased plastic waste from packaging as people switched to online shopping and food delivery. The pandemic has also given rise to medical waste, such as face masks and plastic gloves. This medical waste is hazardous because improper treatment could risk spreading the deadly virus.

DCA, together with Center for Indonesia's Strategic Development Initiatives, have published guidelines on medical waste treatment. The digital book has so far been downloaded by 300 institutions.

Another of Tenia’s achievements is the #nostrawmovement, a campaign to reduce single-use plastic straws, one of the most common items of plastic waste found as marine debris.

According to DCA's data, 93 million plastic straws are dumped daily in Indonesia. DCA managed to collaborate with fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken to adopt the #nostrawmovement. In 2018, the restaurant removed plastic straw dispensers from its outlets nationwide. Motivated by the same data, more restaurants followed KFC's example.

"Data and collaboration can spread our impact faster,” Tenia said. “Something as simple as plastic straws can become an entrance to raise people's awareness.”

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