Jakarta’s trash problem

Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital is home to more than 10 million people. Foreigners who visit the city often describe it as loud, dirty busy and very, very messy (even though they have been to other SEA cities before!). To be honest, I had exactly the same thoughts when I first came here in July 2018.

As somebody who rode a motorbike through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, I thought I had seen the worst traffic possible but my intuition was proved wrong. Everyone drives how she/he wants, there is no proper short-distance railway system and therefore, the streets are crowded as nowhere else in SEA. 

Traffic jams from dawn until doom. One doesn’t have to be a genius to realize, that this city has a huge problem when it comes to handling issues a 10-million people metropolitan has to deal with. According to the air quality map of the “World Air Quality Index Project Team”, the air in Jakarta is the worst in all of South East Asia and a note to the rankings warns that the air is “Unhealthy”. Furthermore, “everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects”, is written by the World Air Quality Index PT

Beside traffic, another issue which the government of Jakarta fails to deal with will strike foreign visitors directly because it is, such as traffic, present everywhere. It’s the incapability of dealing with the trash such a city produces. 

Each day, the ten million citizens of Jakarta, produce more than 7,000 tons of garbage — a number which is still growing. 

The biggest problem is the production of non-biodegradable trash such as plastic trash. 

As in any other Asian city, the use of one-way-plastic is common in everyday life. Everything one buys will be packed into a plastic bag, small snacks are sold in plastic bags, your coffee to-go comes in a plastic cup, accompanied by a plastic straw, as well as a plastic bag, with which you can carry the cup practically, instead of holding it in your hand, as you would hold a cup usually.

To put it in a nutshell: plastic is considered as something very useful and essential in every day’s life as the following pictures show. Possible, negative consequences are as unknown to most Indonesians as snow is. 



Bantar Gebang – Southeast Asia’s biggest landfill

Due to the cities ineffective trash disposal systems and a general lack of education about sustainable plastic disposal, plastic trash is found everywhere. Mostly in rivers, where currents turn single plastic pieces into big trash carpets, as well as in streets and public places. For western visitors who are used to well-working trash disposal systems, those views may be terrific. But the trash that can be seen in and around the streets of Jakarta is just the peak of the iceberg.

The majority of the 7 000 tons of trash that Jakarta produces on a daily basis, ends up at South East Asia’s biggest landfill, Bantar Gebang. A huge landfill, located in the district of Bekasi, about 30 kilometers south east of Jakarta. Since 1989 Jakarta’s government uses the landfill as a final storage for the city’s trash. In only 29 years the landfill has reached an average height of 25 meters and a size of more than 120 hectares (120 Soccer fields). More than 3000 people call Bantar Gebang their home, making money by recycling what other people throw away.

As a person who is highly interested in the aftermaths our western consumer lifestyle produces, I made my way out of Jakarta to visit Bantar Gebang.

My personal visit to Bantar Gebang

From my Couchsurfing host’s home, located in a lovely neighborhood of West Jakarta, it takes me about two hours by train to reach Bekasi. As I reach Bekasi I order a motorbike taxi and my excitement of interest rises as I get closer to the trash site. Here, 30 kilometers outside of Jakarta, the traffic is still very busy and Bekasi, as well, is crowded with people.

After a 25 minutes’ drive through normal looking neighborhoods I reach a curve and after passing it, I am totally astonished. A huge trash mountain with unpredictable length shows up only 30 meters away from me. Something a visitor would never expect after driving through Bekasi’s unimposing neighborhoods. 

The dump looks much bigger than in the pictures I’ve seen and my astonishment rises, as I pay the driver and start walking towards the dump. I arrive at the right time and there are several trucks, unloading huge amounts of trash. Dozens of people are gathering around the trash, picking up several goods, which they still can turn into money. 

Me, standing in front of Bantar Gebang, September 2018

The whole scene seems surreal, like the wild, terrific scenes of a dream which’s message is encrypted.

Can all of this be true? Just 20 minutes away from one of Jakarta’s consuming temples, the Bekasi mall, are people living from and in trash. The stench is unbearable and my heart shrinks while looking deeply into the eyes of a 6-years old boy, who is carrying a bag of plastic items. 

“What are you doing here, white man?”

Above of my head are Plastic bags, circling ominous through the hot air, reminding me of voracious vultures.

My basic Bahasa Indonesia skills usually give me the chance to communicate with locals, but it seems as if nobody wants to talk to me at Bantar Gebang’s trash fill. Questions about the duration of people’s work days or their age are ignored, as well as my request for a proper interview. 

Workers at Bantar Gebang. “Those people have nothing. Recycling the trash is their only source of income” – Guard at Bantar Gebang

Consequently, to the fact that a white man with a camera is wandering around South East Asia’s biggest trash dump, it only takes five minutes for security guards to arrive and ask in a very harsh way for my permit to visit the landfill. 

Therefore, I try to explain them, in my broken Bahasa and an excusing smile, that I applied for a permit but didn’t got a confirmation yet. Nevertheless, they take me on their motorbike to the registration bureau. We drive along huge trash mountains and I can’t believe how this place excels my expectations of a 30-meter-high landfill. 

What follows next is the grueling procedure of Indonesian bureaucracy. 

According to the guards, I will have the ability to apply right now for a visitor’s permission. After waiting for 30 minutes without further explanations, I start to ask questions. “The administrator is eating”, “The administrator is praying”, “He will be here in thirty minutes”, “He will be here in one hour”, “He will be here in the evening”, are the sentences I get to hear for the next hour of waiting. Frustrated and confused I sneak away from the guard who is deeply focused on winning a crude smartphone game instead of watching me. 

As I walk up on one of the huge trash hills, it astonishes me again. Huge masses of trash as far as my eyes can see. Suddenly, a guard recognizes me and shouts aggressively that I have to come down. 

I am able to glimpse the dimension of this trash site, until the guard comes up to me and accompanies me down. We go back to the office and they explain me in Bahasa Indonesia that the administrator will not come today but I can come back tomorrow. 

That’s it, no chance for a negotiation when the guards drive me back to the still busy entry of Bantar Gebang. Staggered by today’s experiences, I catch a last sight on South East Asia’s biggest landfill as I turn my way and start walking towards the street. I walk away from the smell, the flies, the broken dreams. 

Away from Jakarta’s failure to handle it’s ten million citizen’s trash.

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