Credit: Photos and video courtesy of Retno Hapsari, Director of XSProject

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Portions of the included interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Indonesia’s Pemulung Communities

Cirendu, a towering 165-foot garbage dump in South Jakarta, has become both a home and workplace for Indonesia’s pemulung, or trash-picker, communities. About 100 families call this site home, while an estimated 3.7 million individuals across Indonesia rely on collecting recyclable trash in bulk to sell to recycling companies to make a living. Despite working 12-hour days or longer, starting at 5:00 am, to sort through hazardous waste and expend extraordinary energy, these individuals often barely earn $6 CAD per day. 

Over the past 50 years, Indonesia’s infrastructure development has led to rapid urbanization, resulting in many people migrating from rural areas into urban centres like Jakarta in search of economic opportunities. In 1950, only 15% of the population lived in urban settings, and by 2021 that number had climbed to over 57%. Jakarta is one of the most crowded cities in the world, and the scale of urban migration has created a large and noticeable gap between the rich and the poor. Indonesia has a poverty rate of 60%, and the poorer members live in informally-built kampungs, the Indonesian word for village. Although the kampungs are surrounded by skyscrapers, international corporations, and wealthy neighbourhoods, the residents live in difficult conditions and struggle daily to feed themselves and their families. 

In an interview with Spheres of Influence, Retno Hapsari, general manager of XSProject who has been working to empower trash-picker communities for nearly 20 years, asserts that “the living conditions are just beyond [what anyone in Canada] can imagine.” Those who migrate to urban centres often have very limited or no education, and out of the 100 families that XSProject works to help within the Cirendu dump, “7/10 of [the] adults only have primary school education.” Limited by their lack of education, the poorest members of society find it difficult to secure formal jobs and have to take on informal work like trash-picking to survive. 

Life on a Garbage Dump

Indonesia is facing a large-scale trash crisis due to the combination of ever-increasing population density and an unorganized waste management system. Every year, Indonesia produces about 8 million tonnes of plastic waste, with about 5 million tonnes of it mismanaged. The waste is dumped in open landfills, leaked from unregulated dumps, or not collected at all. Trash-pickers are at the lowest processes of the garbage system: they collect, sort, and wash recyclable trash to sell to middlemen, who then sell these items in bulk to recycling companies. 

Living and working in mismanaged garbage dumps has severe health and safety consequences for the trash-picker communities. The air is highly polluted with large amounts of smoke produced from the burning of trash, and methane gas from rotting waste. Due to a lack of garbage collection, rivers carry 83% of the debris that leaks into marine environments, and as a result, drinking water is contaminated with bacteria and harmful chemicals. One study done by the Arnika Organization found that Indonesia has the highest-ever global levels of certain chemicals, such as dioxins, in soil samples and food products in communities that are located near garbage dumps. 

Trash-picking can also be incredibly dangerous. Ewok, age 40, has been trash-picking in Jakarta’s Bantar Gebang dump for over nine years. “In the past I got hit by a digger in this area,” recalls Ewok. “The bucket hit me. I was unlucky… Many things can happen here. More than 10 people have died here that I know of.” 

Kampungs (villages) at Bantar Cebang, Indonesia’s largest garbage dump and one of the largest in the world.

Colonialism and its Consequences for Indonesia’s Waste

Unlike the garbage systems in much of the Global North, Indonesia’s garbage processes were never given the chance to develop. Indonesia was colonised and occupied by the Netherlands between the 1600s and 1941, followed by the Japanese until 1945, and only declared independence in August of that year. The Dutch colonization of Indonesia was resource-motivated, harvesting Indonesia’s natural resources and selling Dutch goods in the local market. 

Long-term extraction and economic exploitation have led to Indonesia’s garbage system management being both unorganized and unsustainable for the people and the environment. Dutch colonial policies focused on developing Jakarta’s infrastructure, leaving surrounding areas solely for extraction purposes without any improvements in infrastructure. This lack of investment has continued post-independence, and infrastructure development outside of Jakarta has been minimal or neglected entirely. 

The rapid economic and social development that took place post-independence, from 1967-1998, under President Soeharto was possible through authoritarian leadership and the silencing of Indonesians’ political rights. Indonesia was left economically, socially and politically fragmented after the exit of the Japanese, and was brought into modernity by a militarized dictatorship that lasted until 1998. The majority of Indonesians were kept desperately poor during this time, while a small circle of elites gained extreme wealth through the continuous extraction of natural resources. 

Corruption amongst political elites began during the Dutch colonial period and is still a hallmark of Indonesia’s government, even after its transition to democracy. Large-scale political and petty corruption runs rampant among public officers, and money that is allocated for infrastructure development is often not used for its intended purposes. In fact, millions of dollars every year are taken from public spending due to individual corruption, and the result is rapid environmental destruction and the prevention of improvements to the waste management system.

Corruption also deeply affects Indonesia’s trash-pickers. The middle-men who buy recyclables from these communities continue to pay smaller and smaller amounts in order to turn higher profits, and to compensate for the corruption that occurs at every stage of the trash-collection process. In Retno Hapsari’s words, “When I give presentations to foreigners, they ask ‘Why is the government not helping?.’. The money that is given, a lot of it gets taken by corruption.”

The Work of XSProject

XSProject is an organization working to break the cycle of poverty within Indonesia’s trash-picker communities. Retno Hapsari spoke with Spheres of Influence about the daily challenges she faces trying to improve the quality of life for the trash-pickers. “[The government] don’t want these people, don’t want to formalize them, but at the same time, are not preparing the flow of trash that exists,” she says.

Retno knows she and XSProject cannot change the entire trash system, so they focus instead on providing education to the children of trash-pickers in order to make healthcare more accessible and improve basic standards of living. Retno says they need to “focus on one thing and make it happen- focus on one person at a time. I cannot fix it all. We survive, and we continue. I believe in what I do, and I would like to do more, but it always comes down to funds. We have to rely on support.” 

XSProject has had many notable successes. They have built a kindergarten, provided a range of health services for trash-pickers, implemented clean water systems in pemulung communities, and even started a business that allows trash-pickers to convert non-recyclable products into household items as a source of income. However, Retno and XSProject face a lack of recognition from within Indonesia or abroad. “People close their eyes, they don’t even want to think about it…Even Indonesians, most people don’t really understand.”

Retno explains the central challenge facing XSProject: “If we don’t send these kids to school, those adults will create the same kids, over again. I have to focus on every single kid of every family going to school. It’s hard for me to stop because there are always more kids.”

The Psychological Traps of Poverty

Aside from the enormous stream of trash, Retno also notes that the obstacles to empowerment exist within the minds of trash-pickers as well. “The only job they can think of is picking trash…it’s about changing mindsets when you’re talking about urban poverty.”

Despite XSProject’s success in sponsoring the education of 9 individuals all the way through university,  it can be difficult to break the cycle of poverty that has kept many families trapped for generations. “You have to make sure they go through primary, middle school, and high school, despite the entire situation at home. The parents will say ‘Why don’t you not go to school, let’s pick up trash instead.’” Retno goes on to describe one boy who had been sponsored through college, but left when his grades worsened. When Retno asked if he wanted to continue college, he said he wanted to become a middle-man collector like his father instead. “I knew then that that wasn’t what he wanted, it was what his dad wanted. Then, that child is right back in the cycle, gone. That’s the reality. The parents still live in that, so they don’t see another way.”

Retno also faces challenges when it comes to encouraging trash-pickers to seek healthcare. “They never want to go to the doctor… they’re embarrassed because they cannot read. The thing that holds them back from progressing, is that they don’t want people to put them down. So, they get sick.” To motivate trash-pickers to attend dental check-ups, Retno offers bags of staple foods, which include basics such as rice and oil. Even with the offer of food that they so desperately need, the trash-pickers will still forgo treatment due to embarrassment about the state of their teeth and social standing. “It’s not just the money, but teaching them about life outside [trash-picking].”

The Risks of Sustainability 

Although Indonesia needs to organize its waste management to become more environmentally friendly, this process could harm the trash-pickers. In 2008, the government implemented a new garbage system that required households to sort and organize their trash for collection by the elected head of each village. This led households to begin sorting, cleaning, and organizing their trash- something entirely new in Indonesia.

While this has improved the organization of trash, “If there’s no [recyclables], the pemulung cannot collect, and don’t have income, so they have to go back to their village,” says Retno, where there are even fewer job opportunities. “There’s a negative impact of [the new system], which is in a way killing the trash pickers… the program is successful because people are sorting their trash, but then there are still so many people that depend on picking trash.” 

However, Retno points out that part of the reason why there is so much pollution in Indonesia is because “there’s not enough [formal workers] compared to the amount of trash.” Therefore, there are definite opportunities to improve both the environment and quality of life by formalizing trash-pickers. While it may not solve government corruption, paying trash-pickers a wage and incorporating them into the garbage process would help manage trash removal and management while also assisting pemulung communities in gaining access to safe housing, healthcare, and education. 

If you want to support the incredible work of XSProject, please visit:

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Emily Hellam

"Emily was born in Toronto but grew up in Bermuda, Malta, and Indonesia. She is currently in the fourth year of her undergraduate degree in International Relations from UBC, and works at the university...