Burning Garbage: Anarchy in Indonesia

A little pile of garbage. A lazy flame, slowly burning at the street side. A penetrating smell and lots of smoke. A very common scene in various countries around the world. How is it possible that even in major cities of rapidly developing countries, people still have to self-manage their daily waste?

Giacomo Canetta, Contributor, The Netherlands

Image: the author’s

Indonesia has gone through a lot of development in the past decades. Yogyakarta in particular has become a pleasant and livable city. It seems logical that a modern city is at the very least able to provide basic infrastructures: clean water, a sewage system, decent roads and … garbage disposal. But, after living there for several months, I was surprised to see that people still have to self-dispose of their garbage.

I didn’t know where to start my inquiry, so I first asked for the opinions of friends. Their response? “People don’t see this as a problem, to be honest”. So, I guess it’s all about awareness and education. I know that fumes derived from burning plastics are very toxic, and I try to avoid them as much as possible. To me it seems an obvious truth, yet other people might not be as aware of this danger. How is it possible that there is no awareness? “I think it is also a matter of social norms. When everyone does it, you don’t question a certain practice”.

Still, once people become aware of these issues they start breaking the social norm and trying something new. Is there not any incentive for recycling and/or a better waste management? “Certain things are recycled. Glass and metal in general. They cannot be burned, of course. So there are people that come to collect (buy) them, and bring them somewhere else. With plastic bottles is possible too, but people usually don’t bother with sorting it out from the pile, and it simply gets burned. While paper’s market-value is very small”.

Have you ever heard of Bank Sampah? “Yes, but I don’t think there is one in Yogyakarta”. Bank Sampah (Garbage Bank) is an all-Indonesia project which tries to stimulate recycling practices. Recyclable waste (with market value) is collected and exchanged for virtual credits, which can in turn be used to buy goods and services at affiliated vendors. The project started in Yogyakarta itself, but apparently Bank Sampah is not very well known—not even in the city that saw its birth. Moreover, this system is limited to materials which can be sold by Bank Sampah on the market. Most of the garbage people produce has no market value, and is therefore not recycled.

Is the local government not involved in this? “They do collect some things in certain areas. But I don’t really know where it ends up. I think they just dump it somewhere, surely is not recycled”. Keeping in mind other examples of the “dump it somewhere” method, it is clear that this is not a solution either.

From my daily observations it seems that garbage collection involves mostly small, private actors. The job is also usually done by people marginalized from society. Homeless people or individuals living in extreme poverty will try to get what  little income they can from collecting and re-selling waste. The earning margins are of course incredibly small, and working conditions are of very low standard.

Waste management is not only an imminent environmental challenge, but also a key social issue. Most of the world’s population is today increasingly made up of urban dwellers, and in developing countries, cities are expanding at an incredibly fast rate. When this expansion is not matched by adequate public attention to major social issues, things start to get messy. As the urban sprawl comes to predominate; slums arise where land is cheap and dangerous to build on and infrastructures consistently lag behind people’s needs.

When it comes to waste management, the situation is equally chaotic and allarming. Responsibility is left in the hands of market-based anarchy, and very quickly tasks that cannot generate profit will fall through the cracks. The poorest of the poor are left, literally, to rummage between heaps of trash in search of some pocket money.

Just one question remains … Where is the state in all this?