|Jakarta -- A Day in the Life in Jakarta’s Waste Stream
You, my friend, are a piece of trash.
(I’m asking you to imagine this, you understand.)
You are a piece of trash, and you’ve just entered the waste stream by way of our
kitchen trash can. Let’s say you’re an unrinsed, plastic, mixed-berry-yoghurt
container. Most of your contents have been scooped out, but there’s still a bit of
gloop clinging to the bottom, and a little crescent of the foil lid still adheres to your
rim. You’re nestled amongst banana peels and eggshells, an empty cardboard
carton of milk, damp paper towels, the last few strands of spaghetti noodles that
clung to the bottom of the pot, and a few blocks of wood that were used in a
The small receptacle is full, so you are hoisted out of the can (but you’re still inside
the plastic garbage sack). Once this sack passes through the kitchen door out to
the staff area, you and the rest of your sackmates are no longer my property. You
are a free agent. You’re up for grabs.
I don’t ever see it happening but, at some time, somewhere just outside that kitchen
door, that sack gets re-opened, and you and your fellow rubbish are rummaged
and either retrieved or rejected. The food waste is pushed aside (we think; we
hope) and the wood blocks are quickly seized and squirreled away. Plastic vessel
that you are, you’re considered for your storage value, but then discarded again for
lack of a proper lid. The bag is re-tied and carried out to the 2’ x 2’ bin fitted into the
inside front wall.
The outside of the wall has a small door so you and the rest of our household
refuse can be extracted. The first person to reach the bin may or may not be our
official garbage collection agent. Whoever he is, he’s almost certainly pulling a long-
handled, narrow, two-wheeled cart called a grobak. Chances are good that he’s a
regular on this round and our guard might give him an open-handed gesture of
permission, silahkan — roughly, “have at.”
The man with the grobak carries a long metal stick with a 90-degree bend at the
end. With this he rifles through the contents of the bin. It might contain cuttings
from the garden, a few wrappers from whatever the guard might have consumed
over the course of his shift, and the bag in which you, my discarded yoghurt cup, lie
smooshed up against a wad of cotton balls reeking of nail-polish remover and a
snik-bladed safety razor (overlooked by the staff in their rummaging—it might have
been the perfect… something scraper). The scavenger sifts through the bin,
opening the trash bag and retrieving that which he deems worthy. You make the
cut, and are transferred to the middle section of his cart. Between the neatly tied
cardboard and the empty soda cans. He ties up the bag and places it back within
the bin, positions himself between the handles of his cart, slings a cloth-wrapped
rope/yoke across one shoulder, and sets the wagon in motion. You follow his
barefoot peregrinations for the next two hours.
Along the way, you’ve passed other grobak pullers, in part because the cart you’re
in isn’t as densely packed as some. Some of the guys who collect vegetable
matter—fallen limbs, shrubbery and banana-tree trimmings—end up with really
heavy carts. But then, they often stop and off-load their carts if they pass a
suitable vacant lot (or wide place in the street). There they set fire to the material,
sending acrid columns of deep-tan smoke dancing across the streets. And if a few
dozen plastic grocery sacks blow onto the fire, well, they just shrivel and give off a
sharp puff and then they’re [kof, kof] gone forever [kof, hack].
As the cart is nearly full, you feel it being pulled across a short cement bridge. The
puller stops, loosens his grip, and lets the heavy rear of the cart settle onto the
street. His wife is there, handing him a small glass full of what looks like cloudy
water. It’s some variety of jamu, the traditional herbal drink that will cure anything
from slow circulation to an indifferent spleen. She then helps him carry his plastic
bounty down to the edge of the grey-brown stream. You, Mr. or Ms. Yoghurt
Container, are a recyclable plastic, but you’ve got to be made presentable in order
to fetch a decent price. As luck would have it, you can be washed here in this
stream for free. Such savings are pretty important to this couple, since he’ll bring in
perhaps US$1.50 today, US$2.50 if it’s a good day.
Ooops, your new friend, Mr. 500ml Pocari Sweat* Bottle, just got swept away down
the stream. A loss of revenue, yes. But, since there are 1400 cubic meters of trash
spilled/dumped into Jakarta’s rivers each day, another water bottle from upstream is
bound to float along soon.
You’ve had your insides rinsed, and that incongruous little crescent of foil from the
lid has been peeled off (and set adrift). You’re neatly nested inside similar cups,
and ready for the next leg of the journey.
The local collection station is nicer than many – like a Holiday Inn Jr. when you’ve
just passed a string of forlorn Super 8 wannabes. But in a third-world garbage-
dump kind of a way. There’s a small incline on the approach to the garbage station,
so some of the grobak pullers team up to mount the hill. Just yesterday I saw a sort
of three-cart cha-cha line, with a fourth guy pushing on the last cart.
The carts are parked along the road on either side of the collection station. Groups
of men stand and smoke and some men squat and sort and smoke and some men
just stand. Much of the material collected has already been separated within the
carts as it was picked up. Those who didn’t go down to the river to “clean” now pick
through the day’s finding and brush and scrape as needed. When 3pm rolls
around, one of the seldom-sighted orange city trash trucks comes along (provided
you’re in a nicer neighborhood; if you’re in a not-so-nice neighborhood, it might not
come along until some time next Tuesday, as long as it hasn’t been completely
diverted by someone influential in the trash ministry who has a covert deal to haul
the trash of some private industry).
All of your fellow, non-recyclable pieces of trash and all the other contents of the
grobak are transferred by hand—piece by piece or bucket by bucket—up to the
men standing in the back of the orange truck. This takes about two hours. Some of
the men are barefoot or wearing flip-flops; none have gloves, although one man
has wrapped his hands with plastic sacks. There is no mechanization here; the
trash is simply stamped down to make it all fit.
As a piece of marginally valuable plastic waste, you’ve not been loaded onto the
truck but are instead bundled together for the next leg of your trip to one of the
“lords of collectors.” Another hour-long hike through the neighborhoods of south
Jakarta bring you to the lot of one such “lord.” You and your fellow recyclables are
assessed, weighed, and paid for. You’ve been brought to this particular collection
site because the owner also owns the handcart in which you’ve arrived. The man
pulling the roughly $80 grobak merely rents it. This “lord of collectors” has funds to
finance the scavenger operation and may earn Rp3,000,000–7,500,000 (US$ 300–
750/month). (Note: The low end of that is still better than a well-paid personal driver
earns, and the position and salary of driver is much sought-after here.) The
collector then sells the plastic or cans or paper to a distributor (either an individual
or firm) who, in turn, sells to industries that need the waste as raw material. A
distributor probably pulls in about the same cash as a lord of collectors.
Now, back to your less-fortunate, non-recyclable waste colleagues. If the workers
are in the mood to do so, they’ve tied the tarpaulin across the top of the truck and
you’ve headed southeast to the big dump called Bantar Gerbang. Bantar Gerbang
comes up in the local papers from time to time. Sometimes it’s because another
couple dozen people who live at the dump have been killed in a garbage
“landslide.” The dump was in the news for much of 2004 following a dispute about
who controlled the dump, the city of Jakarta or the local government in the sub-
region where the dump was situated. In early January 2004, local Bekasi residents,
protesting the lack of proper landfill, the smell, and the liquid runoff, blockaded the
road to the dump, forcing dozens of rubbish trucks to park along the roadside.
Jakarta’s governor was furious and he ordered that the dump be padlocked and
that trucks dump their load in various swampy sites around the city. Late one night
in Cilincing (North Jakarta) residents were disturbed by the sound of heavy
equipment and went outside to find about 25 trucks emptying their rubbish on a 2.1-
hectare empty block across the road. Understandably, they rather freaked. Luckily
the head of Jakarta’s Sanitation Division was able to assuage their fears by telling
the neighborhood that the emergency situation would “only last for six months.” (It’s
worth mentioning that many folks here get their water from small individual and
communal water wells. They were quick to inquire just what might happen to their
well-water supply in “only six months?”)
A somewhat tentative agreement has been reached and the Bantar Gerbang dump
is back in business for the moment. The fact that it’s a city dump notwithstanding, it
is home to 6000 people — from individuals to extended families. These folks are yet
another community of scavengers. They live near or, essentially, among the piles.
Although they aren’t the most well-respected citizens, they provide considerable
value for the city. However informal they may be, these activities are jobs for these
people and, through these jobs, poverty is reduced somewhat. And because of
their daily toil, raw-material costs for industry are lowered, resources are
conserved, and pollution is, to some extent, reduced.
And then there’s the benefit to the scavengers themselves: they are their own
bosses, the money is actually better than many people in the city earn, and the
working hours are quite flexible. Besides, many of these folks might be unable to
find a job in the formal sector, due to their low level of education or their age (many
children and older individuals survive by scavenging). It’s also difficult for women to
perform a paid activity while caring for their children, so scavenging is a money-
making avenue for many mothers, as well.
Although it might not have been the most burning of topics in your mind, this gives
you some idea of the travails of trash in Jakarta, Indonesia (not atypical among
many developing countries). I researched this topic for my 27 February 2006
presentation to the “How Jakarta Works” study group within the Indonesian Heritage
Society. The presentation was called Sampah di Jakarta (trash in Jakarta), but I
couldn’t decide on a subtitle from these choices: Waste Time; Talking Trash;
Garbage In, Garbage Out; Refuse Round-Up; or The Right to Refuse.
Ultimately, of course, it was A Load of Rubbish.
* Pocari Sweat is the real name of a real beverage—a “sports rehydration drink”