There a lot of quirky things about living in Jakarta but the one thing that I cannot get used to is Indonesia’s trash problem. To be specific, the overuse of plastic bags is the number one thing that drives me crazy about living here. I’m from California and I am, admittedly, a bit of a hippie. But as a California native I was taught at an early age to always do my part to help save the environment. While I can’t say I’m the most eco-conscious of individuals, I do make a habit of doing little things, like using canvas shopping bags, reusable water bottles, and washable sandwich bags, in an effort to reduce my carbon footprint. As a seasoned traveler, I understand that this way of life isn’t a reality for most people around the world. Things like waste management – let alone cultural consciousness about the environment – just aren’t luxuries that most countries around the world can afford. And Indonesia is no exception.
After traveling around Indonesia for two months earlier this year I was aware of the country’s growing trash problem. I was also familiar with Indonesia’s obsession with using obscene amounts of plastic bags. So when I was packing for my big move, one item I made a point to bring along with me was a reusable shopping bag. Now that I’ve lived in Jakarta for a few months, I’m so glad that I got in the habit of using reusable bags early on. Because now that I’m actually residing here, I’m honestly disturbed by the amount of plastic bags Indonesians use. And I’m even more horrified about where all these plastic bags end up.
I started educating myself about Indonesia’s trash problem when I was backpacking around the archipelago this past February. After traveling the length of Java – from Jakarta to Borobudur to Mount Bromo – the island of Bali was the next logical next stop. I’d always heard rave reviews about Bali’s beaches but when I finally arrived at the world-famous Kuta Beach, I was shocked to see just how dirty it was. The wide swath of sand was littered with all sorts of debris – there were full garbage bags, soda cans and plastic bottles, items of clothing, and countless plastic bags. I never even took my sandals off as I walked on the beach. There was so much trash crunching underneath my shoes that I was scared I’d cut or puncture a foot. I was taken aback by the condition of the beach. But it’s not so much that I was disappointed at the filthy state of Kuta’s beach, I was much more concerned that so much trash had actually accumulated there. I mean, surely this couldn’t be the norm.
So in typical Justine fashion I took to Google and started researching Bali’s trash problem. That’s when I realized just how serious this issue was and that what I was seeing wasn’t just a bad trash day. As I found out, the month of December marks the beginning of “trash season” on Bali. (Yes, this term has actually been coined.) In Indonesia, the winter months stir up strong winds and fierce ocean currents which function to cause tons of garbage to drift from the neighboring islands of Java and Sumatra down to Bali’s shores. This phenomenon occurs every year from December to March and is becoming more serious with every passing year. When I visited Bali in February, it was pretty dirty. But at the height of trash season, the amount of debris that washes to shore is, quite frankly, horrifying. Learning about just how bad Indonesia’s trash problem is was a very eye-opening experience for me.
Now that I’m living in Jakarta, I’ve started to get a better idea of not only how much the island of Java contributes to Bali’s trash season but how serious Indonesia’s trash problem really is. With a population of 10 million people, Jakarta produces just over 6,000 tons of garbage each day – that’s 12 million pounds (5.5 million kilos). Not only is this an alarmingly high amount of refuse, but the city doesn’t have a sufficient way to cope with all of this waste. In Jakarta – and all throughout Indonesia – it’s not uncommon to see residents dump garbage in the streets. Emptying trash cans and throwing garbage bags into rivers and oceans is also the norm. And burning trash is just a way of life here.
From what I gather there is trash collection in parts of Jakarta. I mean, my trash does seem to magically disappear but I still don’t know who takes it. And how well the city is able to deal with the sheer volume of garbage is something I still wonder about. The trash that is collected is apparently taken to one of Western Java’s few landfills. Located 30 km (19 miles) from Jakarta, Bantar Gebang is Western Java’s largest landfill. Measuring only 110 hectares – which equates to half a square mile or the length of 10 city blocks – Bantar Gebang receives roughly 800 truckloads and 6,200 tons of garbage every single day. According to this article, the low-tech landfill is actually an open dump site, which has inspired the name “rubbish mountain.” This method of open dumping has had some dire environmental impacts, from air pollution and methane gas emissions to groundwater contamination.
Because there’s no real system for recycling or separating garbage in Jakarta, the landfill receives way more garbage than it should. I do my best to separate my glass bottles and plastics containers from my garbage, but most of the time I’m not sure what the point is. While there isn’t a citywide recycling campaign, some of the city’s poorer residents do make a living from cashing in aluminum cans and glass bottles. But without these people going through the trash, most of the city’s recyclables end up in the landfill. According to this article, well over half of the trash that’s received at the dump each day could be composted, while a significant amount could be recycled. But because there is no system in place to separate trash it all goes to the overflowing landfill that’s not equipped to deal with anywhere near this much waste.
Living in Jakarta, I’m constantly reminded of just how bad Indonesia’s trash problems is. A pinkish blanket of smog constantly hovers over the city. Each riverbed I see is used as a dumping ground for garbage. And every time I go to the grocery store my heart sinks when I watch how freely plastic bags are handed out.
I make a habit of carrying my canvas shopping bags everywhere. And I never buy plastic water bottles. I honestly try my best to limit my waste, but I know it’s a small gesture in a country that has a big problem. But after traveling and living in Indonesia, this is a country I’ve grown to love. The people are some of the warmest and most welcoming that I’ve ever met. And it’s a place that’s bursting with natural wonders – in the form of breathtaking landscapes and exotic species. And I’m passionate about about doing my part to help protect this amazing country.
Were you aware of Indonesia’s trash problem? What do you think of the issue?