The Trash Crisis in Indonesia

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.

Plastic bottles and other trash washed up on the shores of Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia.
Trash scattered on the shores of Kuta Beach, Bali.

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?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

37 thoughts on “The Trash Crisis in Indonesia

  1. Great article Justine. Did not realize the trash was such a big problem! Island living is sure to create disposal issues. So sad for the people and animals. Is it an issue the government cares about?

    1. Thanks Cindy! Yeah, I would never of guessed it was such a big deal either. You always hear about how perfect Bali’s beaches are, but no one ever talks about the trash issue. I’m guessing it’s an issue the government cares about, especially because it can have a huge impact on tourism which is big business in Bali. But I think there needs to be some serious changes made countrywide. Some people are pushing to ban plastic bags on Bali (which would be a really good thing) but even then they have a long way to go.

    1. Thanks Lee. When I first went to Bali I was so surprised to learn about its “trash season.” But I was honestly more surprised that I’d never hear it mentioned before in guidebooks. I agree that the trash makes Bali’s beaches really unappealing. I only went to Kuta and Sanur beaches in southern Bali and I never went in the ocean. Perhaps the beaches to the north are better?

    1. It’s pretty crazy, right? I was really surprised when I found out about how bad it is. Yeah, the whole country needs to make some drastic changes. I’m sure being in China is a huge challenge with, well, pretty much every environmental issue!

  2. Great, informative piece, Justine! The rubbish problem is so sad. I knew about it from my summer travels. I bought a new reusable bottle as soon as I got to Bali (I use one in China anyway but needed a new one) and made sure to refill it. Some places were really good at having the huge tanks of water to refill, but others didn’t. There was that really great eco cafe in Nusa Lembongan that collected plastic bottles in for recycling and gave you a discount on the coffee! But yeh that’s just one place- there needs to be so much more done. That beach photo is really disturbing!
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    1. Thanks Joella! I had the same issue refilling water bottles in Indonesia. It was frustrating coming from places like Thailand and the Philippines where there are water refill stations everywhere. But in Indonesia this just doesn’t seem to be the trend. That so cool that Lembongan had an eco-friendly cafe. Any place that gives you coffee in exchange for recycling is pretty awesome in my book! I’ll have to find it next time I go! I agree that there needs to be more places like that throughout Indonesia.

  3. I knew there were trash problems over there (we saw similar littered waterways in Jakarta), but I had no idea how unsustainable the issue is. Part of the problem too is that the water isn’t drinkable. We reused our water bottles and refilled at our guesthouse, but even buying the first bottle they wanted to give me a bag. They looked at me like I was crazy (don’t blame them, really) when i tried to refuse the bag – haha. We saw some trash on the beach in Pemuteran, but nothing like that picture. Geez, it’s so sad to see that in such a beautiful country.
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    1. Don’t even get me started on the drinking water issue, Katie! We have a big refillable water bottle, so I never have to buy plastic water bottles. But it would be so much better if people could drink the tap water! Given that the water out of the tap is often brown, drinking the water here would definitely not be a good idea. So funny that you mention them thinking you were crazy for not wanting a bag. When I first got here I bought a canvas shopping bag at the grocery store, and the clerk was baffled at the fact that I didn’t want the reusable bag put in a plastic bag. Ultimately I couldn’t convince him not to bag it…I deal with being the crazy lady who refuses plastic bags every day! It is such a beautiful country. I’d really like to see them implement some serious changes.

  4. That’s quite sad to hear. But it’s not something new to me, as India has a major trash problem. The thing is people don’t know how to divide the trash. They dispose everything together- food items, paper, plastic, hair, etc. My mom is one of the few who has set up two different dustbins for two kinds of garbage – one that can be recycled and the other that can be reformed. But thankfully, India is reducing the plastic bags/bottles use to an extent.
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    1. I’m not surprised that this is something that you deal with in India. That’s great to hear that your mom separates her trash. That makes me happy :) I wish more people would take small steps to help the environment. It’s wonderful that India is actually taking steps to reduce plastic bags and bottles. I think there is a big push to ban plastic bags on the island of Bali, but I’m not sure it’s gotten approval yet. In Malaysia they charge for plastic bags, which I think is a good thing. It would be nice for Indonesia to starting doing the same!

    1. It was really shocking to me too! I don’t know much about the Maldives but I am surprised to hear that they are affected by a similar issue. I can understand that islands have a difficult time dealing with waste. I just hope they can figure out a way to deal with the issue!

    1. Hi Franca! It really bothers me just how much people use plastic bags here. But it’s so hard to fault a country that just doesn’t have an education about the impact of their waste. Things just really have to change in order to improve the situation in Indonesia. And even though I often feel like my efforts are fruitless, I will always try to do my part to protect this amazingly beautiful country. Every little bit definitely does help :)

  5. OMG, that pic is just crazy. I can’t believe how bad it is!! But sadly, I’ve seen worse. In Jordan and Egypt, there were literally fields full of plastic bags. It was so disturbing to see. When my hubby went swimming in the Red Sea by Egypt, he was totally disgusted and spent his whole time in it just plucking garbage out…but of course, it was a battle that could not be won. :(

    Here in Korea, we have a seriously intense recycling program. We separate styrofoam, hard plastic, vinyl, glass, cans, food waste etc..etc… and even have to pay for the garbage bags that are used to collect regular garbage (which truthfully isn’t much after all the recycling). It IS amazing, and the best I’ve ever experienced…way better than Canada’s for sure. In my aunt’s apartment complex, they even have some machine onsite that recycles all their food waste immediately into energy to heat the apartments!
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    1. Some of the photos of the trash on Bali’s beaches are insane. I’ve even seen some pictures where bulldozers are collecting the trash because there’s just so much of it. Ugh, that’s so sad to hear that Egypt and Jordan have it so bad. I mean, I know a lot of places have huge problems but it always makes me sad to hear about it. It’s always a turn off to go swimming with a bunch of garbage. I had a similar experience to your husband’s in Vietnam. I swear there were so many plastic bags in the water there!

      I love to hear that Korea has such an amazing recycling program. We have nothing like that in the US. And seriously I didn’t know that anywhere in the world had such a sophisticated system. That’s unbelievable that your aunt’s apartment has a machine that turns waste into energy! The world should take notes on how Korea is dealing with waste. That is seriously impressive!

  6. This was so intetesting. I was in Kuta in March and was horrified by the amount of trash all over the beach. Trying to get into the water to surf made me so squeamish!
    I’m a little relieved to learn that there was a reason for it, as the last time I was there it was in June a few years ago and it wasn’t anywhere near as bad. I thought that the areahad just deteriorated, so it’s slightly better to know that it doesn’t look so bad year round. :)
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    1. Hi Christine! I’m actually back in Kuta now and the beaches are perfectly clean compared to when I was here in February! So I guess there really is a trash season. It’s nice to know they are not always filthy!

    1. It’s pretty crazy, huh? I’m actually back in Bali right now and the beach is so much cleaner! I guess all that trash only washes up in the winter months. I was really happy to see that Kuta Beach doesn’t always look like a dumping ground but it’s still disheartening to know that Indonesia suffers from such a trash problem. I never thought about traveling with a reusable bag until I moved to Indonesia. Now I always carry one with me in my purse. I actually have it with me in Bali right now and I’ve been using it every day! Every little bit helps, right?

    1. Thanks Natasha! I agree that there is a huge trash problem in a lot of Asian countries. I’ve actually heard back from a few people who have specifically cited how bad India’s trash problem is. So it’s interesting that you also mentioned it. I can’t even convey how disturbing the indifference in Jakarta is. But it’s hard to place blame when you know people aren’t educated in the matter. It’s all very frustrating, indeed!

  7. I would say that this problem is prevalent all over Asia because the thought to recycle has yet to penetrate much citizens unless you happen to be 1) educated at a higher level where you are forced to think about this 2) can actually afford to think otherwise because the effort to do so does not come easy. Singapore was just as bad as Indonesia in the past actually, it’s just that the government actually did something about it back then. Even so, efforts to recycle is not totally good yet at this moment.

    I would say that I’m half/half. I do try to conserve wherever possible, especially the plastic bags. It’s crazy the amount of plastic bags that my home has accumulated just from grocery shopping and others. I also carry around an eco bag, especially when I’m shopping for groceries but sometimes, the culture of plastic bags here are so prevalent that it is hard to avoid it unless you do it for yourself.
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    1. Oh, and I thought to add that thoughts of recycling is probably hard to grasp for most people living in Asia because most of the time, they are living day to day and thinking about trash would be the least of their worries. And having money is also a big part of Asian culture so I wouldn’t be surprised if recycling is not their top priority which is a shame actually because it is so evident that climate change is imminent and the ones causing harm to the environment is human themselves. :(
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      1. I totally agree with you that people have bigger things to worry about than recycling. And it’s true that being green and environmentally conscious are things that are typically relegated to populations that have more money and/or have access to higher education.

        I totally relate to having a huge pile of plastic bags in your house. When I was moving out of my house in California the amount plastic bags I found stuffed in drawers and closets all over my house was insane! I wasn’t really great about using reusable grocery bags back in California. But for some reason I’ve been really good about it since I moved to Jakarta. I think the reason for that is because I know that Jakarta doesn’t have a great waste management system. I’ve become hyper-aware of the trash problem and I feel guilty using plastic bags here. Whenever I do get plastic bags, I reuse them as trash bags. So I try to do my part. I do wish that there could be more of an effort by the government to institute a recycling program as well as educate people about recycling.

  8. Hi Justine,

    Thank you for exposing this issue. I am a Jakartan and well aware of this chronic problem. While the awareness of this problem is increasing more actions is needed since there is no city-wide campaign or strict law enforcement imposed.

    Dividing trash at home seems to be useless because in the end it will get mixed up in the landfill. Many people still think littering is OK. Recycling is done by private companies which depend on independent garbage collectors. Garbage collector is seen as degrading job and usually done by poor people whom otherwise will be jobless.

    Thank you for your care about this problem. Getting more people aware of this issue & leading by example are the least we can do as individuals. Again, thank you.

    1. Thanks Yohanes. It’s nice to hear that Jakartans like you are aware of the issue. I agree that sorting trash seems like a fruitless effort. I always separate my recyclables from my garbage, but I’m fairly certain it all ends up in the same place. I hope that this issue starts to get more attention in Jakarta. I really love this country. But the trash problem (and all the issues caused by it) makes me so sad :(

  9. It’s such an embarrassment, but it’s true. Most of us can’t afford of thinking other matters aside to how to put meals on our tables from day to day that trash seems like a problem that only bothers privileged foreigners with superiority complex. What makes it worse is our education system. They tell us to not litter, but in the end it’s just empty words that nobody cares about, when we see figures of authority (parents, teachers, law enforcement, etc) are doing the same things anyway. We need a serious nation-wide effort to handle this matter before it gets even worse.

    1. I can’t help but be bothered by it. This is a beautiful country and the negative impacts that the trash issue has on the land and the people here is very sad. I agree that it would be wonderful to have a nationwide effort so that Indonesia can start getting a handle on the issue.

    1. Yeah, Indonesia is such a massive country with such a huge population that I suppose it shouldn’t shock us that there is such a big trash problem. But it really is sad. Unfortunately it’ll take a long, long time for things to change here.

  10. ‘Nggak usah di plastik’ was the first full sentence I’d learned in Bahasa Indonesia and since then I’ve been using every day at least few times. Still haven’t found out where to utilize used batteries here, there is also no waste managment company where I live, so the only option is to pay to some older man who picks it up from our home and later burns it – including plastic of course :/
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    1. Yeah, the use of plastic is pretty disturbing in Indonesia. I really tried to make an effort to refuse accepting plastics bags but it didn’t always work! But yeah, the lack of proper waste management is something that Indonesia should really address. I hope they do soon!

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