From scavengers to waste saviours

Indonesia is home to a community of waste scavengers, informally recovering recyclate from landfills. Emma Love reports on the apps that are recognising the role they play in the country’s waste management infrastructure.

In Indonesia, waste management is poor. According to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), the country’s waste generation reached 65.8 million tonnes in 2017, with the department stating that it expected the rate to grow significantly for the ‘foreseeable future’. At present, Indonesia’s formal solid waste management infrastructure is failing to keep up with waste generation. The result: a huge quantity of unhandled waste polluting Indonesian land and rivers, as well as the ocean.

Rapel waste collectorsKLHK data from 2020 reveals that Indonesia recycles less than five per cent of its overall waste, with a plastic recycling rate of only seven per cent. Research by the National Plastics Action Partnership begins to illuminate some of the obstacles Indonesia’s waste management infrastructure is facing – waste burning and dumping are rife, especially in rural areas, which typically have lower levels of waste management. Mapping and governance are additional challenges, with more than 70 per cent of the country’s Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Waste

Management Facilities (TPS3R) and 40 per cent of its Integrated Waste Management Facilities (TPST) abandoned or registered as ‘unknown status’. From year to year, landfills are turning into open dumping facilities.

With a reported 40 million tonnes of waste, including four million tonnes of plastic, still flowing to Indonesia’s environment, how can the crisis be eased? Enter the ‘pemulung’, the scavengers helping to support Indonesia’s waste management system. Working informally and locally, the scavengers retrieve unsorted inorganic waste and broken electricals, often from landfill sites. Although their community is large – 3.7 million-strong, to be precise – the pemulung role is not formalised within Indonesia’s waste management infrastructure.

Pemulung reportedly earn around 6000RP (Indonesian Rupiah) per kg of mixed waste, equating to around £0.34 per kg. Conditions are harsh – work is constant, with the landfill sites operating 24 hours a day, and shelter from the sun is scarce. Many live onsite, constructing makeshift shacks from building materials found in landfill.

In return for their efforts to support Indonesia’s waste management system, the pemulung are rewarded with poor job security and stigmatisation. Perceived as a ‘social problem’, the scavengers are often denied entry to residential areas, further hindering waste collection. Berthy Jacob, Acting Chief Strategic and Business Growth Officer at Rapel, sheds some light on the roots of the pemulung’s isolation: “It might be that pemulung have come from uneducated or lower-class backgrounds, travelling from the village to cities like Jakarta to try their luck, and ending up as scavengers”. He continues: “In the past, and even to this day, we can read in the newspapers about scavengers stealing things from houses. Because of this, most people have a negative perception of them.”

Although pemulung are looked upon negatively by the general public, the role falls in line with Indonesian environmental legislation – Government Regulation No. 81/2012 – which requires citizens to keep the environment clean, and decrease and manage their waste in accordance with the law, as well as obligating households to sort their waste before taking it to the ‘garbage dump’.

Aiming to rehabilitate the image of pemulung, several apps and digital platforms have sprung up, giving the collectors a more formalised position within the waste management infrastructure. These give pemulung a real job description, training, uniforms, proper equipment, and an income stream, some even providing medical insurance for their employees. Some apps are attempting to de-stigmatise the waste collectors through a rebrand – referring to the collectors as ‘pelestari’ (English translation: ‘preservers of the environment’), instead of ‘pemulung’ (English translation: ‘scavengers’).

The platforms have proven to be reasonably popular, with waste app Octopus being downloaded more than 14,000 times, collecting more than 300 tonnes of plastic waste in three regions during the first half of 2021.

Waste app Rapel, which has been downloaded over 90,000 times, recruits pemulung as ‘partners’, training them on how to use the platform. This, Jacob says, takes a weight off their backs: “By becoming our collector, they have access to a waste source. Pemulung no longer have to walk around door-to-door, or work on the landfill, to find inorganic waste to sell.”

Regarding the onboarding process, he adds: “We went to the pemulung, introduced them to the app, and asked them if they were interested in becoming ‘Rapel Collectors’. Once signed up, they get a uniform and ID, and are trained in small groups, with staff on hand to help with any questions they have.”

Through the app, pemulung are connected directly to households, of which 38,000 have registered. On their part, waste must be sorted into categories – such as plastic, glass, paper, metal, and cardboard – and an approximate weight for the material submitted per category, alongside a photo of the waste. Once this information is submitted, the app finds a Rapel Collector – a pemulung – to pick up the waste.

Outlining Rapel’s takeup, Jacob says: “We have 73 active Rapel Collectors. We began managing inorganic waste at the beginning of 2020, and since then, we have managed more than 300 tonnes of inorganic waste. It’s a small number, but it’s increasing.”

The collector weighs and values the waste based on a price range available in the app, paying households for the waste. Clean, sorted waste fetches a higher price, both in the handover between the household and the collector, and the collector and Rapel. Many households in

Indonesia have yet to pick up waste behaviours such as sorting, Jacob says, leading to a large amount of mixed waste ending up in landfill, but payment systems such as Rapel’s are presenting an incentive for behavioural change.

This article was taken from Issue 102

Bringing the waste to Rapel’s facility, where it is sorted and sent on to a recycling facility, the Rapel Collector receives a price margin as their profit. Profit ranges depending on the category of waste, with plastic bottles, for example, priced between IDR 250/kg and 350/kg. Materials such as copper are priced much higher, around IDR 30,000/kg.

Collectors also receive a performance bonus, based on factors such as speed of response to households, diligence, and total weight. Overall, Rapel collectors are paid a more stable rate of pay through the platform, as well as benefiting from better working conditions. Collectors, Rapel says, are paid between two and five million IDR (between £100 and £255) each month, sometimes more. The average minimum wage in Indonesia, according to the last available figures (2016), ranges between 1.5 and 4.5 million IDR (between £76 and £230) each month.

In 2021, Rapel managed between 30 and 40 tonnes of inorganic waste per month, with plans in place to expand this year: “Our startup began in Jogjakarta Province, expanding later to other areas, like Central Java Province. In 2022, we are planning to expand into Tangerang City and South Tangerang Regency, the suburbs of Jakarta, setting up a new sorting facility there. In the new facility, we’re hoping to recycle not only inorganic waste but organic waste, too.”

The Indonesian Government, Jacob notes, has provided waste apps like Rapel with ‘very little support’. However, with Indonesia’s 2025 waste targets – demanding a 30 per cent reduction in waste production and a 70 per cent processing rate – now only three years away, perhaps platforms such as Rapel hold the key.