Earning a living at world’s largest rubbish dump

An honest living.

Thousands of Indonesian scavengers earn a living from the Tempat Pengelolaan Sampah Terpadu (TPST), Bantar Gebang, Bekasi, the world’s largest landfill with a size of 100 football fields which can hold 39 million tons of waste.  Every day, scavengers are there from dawn to dusk, enduring strong stench of rotting garbage and swarms of flies to find anything that they can sell for a few dollars.

Scavengers and excavator working side by side.

When Maritime Fairtrade visited on September 15, there were already many scavengers, comprised mainly the old and young who have limited job options, scrounging over the mountains of trash, with big excavators sorting through the trash brought in by rubbish trucks.  

Many scavengers earn a living at the landfill.

Scavengers, with a big basket on their backs and a long stick with a nail at the end, told Maritime Fairtrade they were mainly looking for used household goods and plastic bottles.  They estimated that every day, there are thousands of tons of rubbish being brought to the dump site, discarded by residents and which now provided them an honest source of income.

Excavators sorting through waste.

Watim, a 77-year-old scavenger, has been working at the rubbish dump for 30 years.  “I can make, on good days, IDR 100,000 (US$6.70), working from 7 am to 4 pm.  However, making this sum is rare nowadays.  Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my income has dropped by 30 percent.  Now, I earn IDR 70,000 (US$4.70) per day, which is already a blessing, thank God.  A kg of plastic waste can only get me IDR 1,000 (US$0.67),” he said.

Watim, a 77-year-old scavenger.

With his income, Watim supports his wife and four children.  Despite the high risk of accident and infection, and his old age, Watim cannot afford to stop working.  “My family will starve if I stop. I am already so old, what other jobs can I do?” he said.

Excavator working at the massive landfill.

Edi, another scavenger, said he works from 6 am to 5 pm and “whenever the garbage trucks arrive, all the scavengers will rush to snatch whatever sellable trash they can.  I cannot earn enough to meet my family’s daily needs, let alone pay for my children’s education.” A lot of scavengers’ children ended up dropping out of school and the children themselves may end up working as scavengers.  

Scavengers taking shelter from the hot sun in small tents.

Many scavengers live in rundown wooden huts with leaky roofs at villages near the coast, which is only 200 to 300 meters from the landfill.  The stench is bad 24/7, especially on hot days, and water from the wells is polluted so much so that residents use the groundwater for bathing and washing only and buy fresh water for drinking.

A small boy walking by the landfill.

All photos credit: Iqbal Ramdhani

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