The infamous Bantar Gebang landfill site is the biggest open dumping landfill not just in Indonesia, but also in the Southeast Asia region. Spanning across an area of more than 108 hectares, this landfill site receives about 7,000 tonnes of waste from the capital city of Jakarta on a daily basis, accumulating into mountains of waste that reach up to 50 meters high.

However, what one sees as trash is what another values as treasures—which has been the case for around 3,000 people who consider collecting and sorting Bantar Gebang’s waste as their bread and butter.

The waste workers of Bantar Gebang are an integral part of the informal recycling network which has contributed to 9.3 per cent of the recycling rate for all non-organic waste in the landfill site. This number came out as one of the findings from 10-year-long research conducted by a Japanese researcher who has shown a devoted passion for the landfill site and the people working around it as the backbone of plastic recycling in the country.

Meet Dr. Shunsuke Sasaki, an assistant professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan who first came to Indonesia in 2010. He began his research in the field of the informal waste sector as part of a volunteer activity from his campus and has since flown back and forth to continuously study the intricate dynamics of the waste workers’ work and their communities.

Recently, the Regional Knowledge Centre’s team joined him on his field visit to have a firsthand look at the informal recycling network in Bantar Gebang. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

RKC-MPD ERIA: Can you tell us how does the informal waste sector in Bantar Gebang work?

Dr Sasaki: The process begins as trucks full of waste gathered from all over Jakarta arrive at the site. Before being dumped to the final disposal site, trucks with seemingly big compositions of high-value recyclables are informally bought by some group leaders referred to as the ‘bosses’ of waste pickers. This ‘owned’ waste, or in Bahasa called ‘Borongan’, will be sifted through and collected only by those waste pickers permitted by the boss, who are often regarded as his followers.

Dr Sasaki observing waste in a sorting place (left) and sorted soft plastic bottles waiting to be recycled (right).

Dr Sasaki observed waste in a sorting place (left) and sorted soft plastic bottles waiting to be recycled (right).

The rest of the unowned waste, which makes up to 75 per cent of all waste carried to the site, will be deposited in the towering mountains of waste where it will be scoured through by the remaining waste pickers. They would have to compete in salvaging any items they can sell under the scorching sun of the tropics.

On average, a waste picker can bring home 120 kg of recyclables in a day, which will undergo sorting and packaging processes before being sold to the bosses. These tasks are often performed by housemakers who tend to be female, helping the family to earn more money in between their house chores.

On the next day, collected waste from the waste pickers will be further sorted and accumulated by wage labourers working under the bosses, so as to get higher prices when sold to recycling factories or middlemen.

What are the different types of recyclables collected and which are collected the most by informal workers?

Dr Sasaki: There are more than 50 types of recyclables that are sold into the recycling trade, with specific terminology and local names used among the community of informal recyclers in Bantar Gebang. These materials include soft plastics (PE, PP), hard plastics (PET bottles, PVC tubes), aluminium, iron, glass, and paper to name a few.

Since the landfill site is the receiving end of the waste value chain, most of the high-value plastics such as PET bottles have already been collected by street pickers in the city, leaving the Bantar Gebang waste pickers with mostly the low-valued ones. However, low-value soft plastics, especially plastic bags, are more significant in volume, making up more than 80 per cent of the total collected recyclables.

Bags of recyclables that have been segregated based on their types.

Bags of recyclables that have been segregated based on their types.

As the main commodity of trade, recycling facilities for soft plastics outnumber the other types, adding up to more than 10 recycling facilities within the area.

One of these facilities, owned by a private company named PT Dunia Makmur Bersama, was established in 2008 and processes up to 20 tons of plastic bags daily. Incoming waste will be first washed in multiple stages before being melted into HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) pellets. Of all the waste, only 30 per cent are fit to be processed into a total of 1 ton of pellets, which sells for around 8,000 Rupiah (US$0.5) per kilogram.

Plastic bags put into the washing processor by a wage worker (left) and bags of recycled pellets ready to be transported (right).

Plastic bags put into the washing processor by a wage worker (left) and bags of recycled pellets ready to be transported (right).

Do you think the number of collected recyclables contributes to enough income for the informal waste workers?

Dr Sasaki: The average monthly income of waste workers in Bantar Gebang is about IDR 1,200,000 (US$78), which is still less than the minimum wage (IDR 2,250,000 or US$145). However, as most households consist of more than one waste worker, the average monthly household income is IDR 2,400,000 (US$155).

There are two paths in which the cashflow comes, one is from a weight basis transaction offered by bosses of waste pickers or middlemen, and the other is from a unit basis transaction with itinerant buyers. The items traded on a unit basis are high-value recyclables which will be sold in the market of junk or as reused items, such as faucets made from brass. However, this only accounts for a small fraction of their monthly income, as more than 90 per cent of it is comprised of recyclables traded on a weight basis.

In addition to this, the residents living within the vicinity of the landfill site receive a ‘compensation fee’ for the putrid stench and tainted air and water from the piled garbage. The amount each household receives every 3 months from the government is IDR 1,200,000 (US$78).

So, to conclude, the pay a waste worker gets for the hard work in scavenging is meagre, but still, they are grateful to make ends meet even if the exact amount of money they bring home each day fluctuates with the market’s demand.

The makeshift houses of most waste workers in Bantar Gebang

The makeshift houses of most waste workers in Bantar Gebang

What are the risks (social, economic, health) that the informal waste workers may encounter?

Dr Sasaki: Undoubtedly, they are subjected to marginalization both economically and socially.

However, what concerns me the most is the risk of health conditions they have to face from rummaging through trash piles every day. As most of the deposited waste is mixed, quite often the waste pickers will come across unmanaged medical waste, which exposes them to harmful and contaminated substances.

Not to mention the polluted air, filled with particulate matter including that of microplastics, putting them at risk of developing severe respiratory problems in the long term. According to our research, the concentration of particulate matter in the surrounding air exceeded the WHO standard level by nearly 3 to 4 times.

There is also a high possibility of labour accidents from a landslide of waste, catastrophic explosions from methane gas accumulation, or being hit by vehicles such as excavators and dozers while unloading waste.

Excavators piling up incoming waste among working waste pickers

Excavators piling up incoming waste among working waste pickers

In your opinion, do the informal waste workers take part in reducing plastic leakage to the environment?

Dr Sasaki: Yes, most certainly. The informal waste workers are a critical workforce in the recycling chain of most developing countries including Indonesia, whose work still goes unrecognized by many.

Even though there are still possibilities of plastic leakage from recycling facilities due to limited regulation and enforcement on sewage filters, for every plastic bag and bottle recovered, that’s less plastic that ends up in the ocean—thanks to informal waste workers such as those of Bantar Gebang’s.


Also read: Unlocking the Solution to Plastic Pollution: Thailand’s Push for Circular Economy and Extended Producer Responsibility