Photo by Flick user Matt Crook.

While the Indonesian authorities collect most of the islands' rubbish from the streets, they fail to actually dispose of it. By dawn, the growing mountains of rubbish on the outskirts of cities become the workplace for over 500,000 illegal workers. Known as trash pickers, they dig through the waste for any scrap that will fetch a price.

Indonesia produces 45 million cubic metres of refuse waste each year; the capital itself could fill more than ten Olympic swimming pools in rubbish each day.

For the disposal of this enormous mass, sixty percent of the islands' cities rely on "unmanaged" dump sites. That means that while 80 percent of waste is collected, transported, and disposed of on an official dump site, it is not treated or removed.

In 1995 the government committed itself to a "waste minimisation scheme" and began promoting what they labelled the "3Rs" - reuse, reduce, recycle. Fifteen years later however, and the dumps continue to be filled with thousands of tonnes daily. Not only do hundreds of thousands of scavengers live off the leftovers, but so do the cattle of the local farmers.

“Poor farmers bring their cows - later to be sold for meat consumption - to feed”

Rully Dasaad is a photographer from Bali, which neighbours Java island.

Due to the large amount of restaurant waste, poor farmers bring their cows to feed on the dumps. However, they're not able to check what they're eating.

The cows will later be sold to a traditional market nearby and the meat then eaten by the locals. It's sad to think there is no control over this system. I'm sure rubbish must be bad for the cows - some of the stuff they're eating is waste from restaurants specialised in goat meat. Which doesn't bode well when you think of mad cow disease in Europe.

City dwellers don't care about this problem because they shop in Carrefour where meat comes from meat producers approved by the government and dairy products come from Australia and New Zealand (Nestlé, Fontera, Danone, Unilever etc)."

Working on a Java landfill

All photos taken by Flick user Matt Crook on 18 January 2010. See the full set here.

“Danone Aqua bottles sell for around 12 euro centimes per kilo”

Retno Hapsari works for the XSProject which promotes awareness of the trash pickers' conditions, buys non-recyclable materials from trash pickers at higher prices, and provides financial support for school-going children of trash pickers. She's based in Jakarta, Java island, where the majority of trash pickers live.

Trash pickers tend to come looking for work from small villages around the big cities or other islands. They work every day from 5am to 9am when they go home (to a 3x5 metre cardboard shack) to sort through their findings. They then go back out at 2pm and work into the evening.

Trash pickers sell their findings to their ‘lapak'. This person then sells the materials on to factories. Each lapak usually has between 20 and 40 people working for them. They have set prices for each material: for Danone Aqua bottles for example, they'll give around 1,500 Rupiahs [12 euro centimes] per kilo. Metals receive a higher price.

Trash pickers are unable to leave their lapak, because they are constantly indebted to them. The lapaks pay their staff at the start of the month; so everything the pickers then sell to the lapak comes off their balance. Trash pickers refuse to borrow money from the bank; they trust their lapak more. The lapak is usually the one who owns the land that they live on too. The pickers' lives depend on them.

When you walk on the trash piles it's like walking on a mattress. They don't even consider protection from the rubbish, like wearing gloves or boots. They're often in sandals or no shoes at all. The kids run around naked in the trash.

The trash pickers I talk to say they're happy. One handsome 23-year-old guy I talked to from another island told me that he came to Jakarta looking to make a living and he's found it. They tell you ‘life is good' because it's not a question of happiness, it's a question of survival.

The kids might go to state school but not for long. They say they don't like it because they can't buy snacks like the other children. And their parents aren't very encouraging because they want to get them out working.

Like all developing countries, the Indonesian government has bigger issues to tackle before education and welfare. They find the pickers a bother (they're not a nice sight for tourists). However, they can't get rid of them either - these people are the first section of society to begin recycling! They're an essential part of a refuse system which is currently far from comprehensive."

An unmanaged dump site in action

The Bekasi dump site, on the outskirts of Jakarta, is Indonesia’s biggest. Video posted 24 Sept. 2008 by “kenttruog”.