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Scavengers and recycling in Indonesia

by Manfred Oepen *

Indonesia's 'Pemulung'- i.e. scavengers or waste pickers, are the poorest of the urban poor, and their social status is correspondingly low. The work done by these people, however, generates large-scale savings for many Indonesians and for the State authorities and prevents extensive environmental pollution.

Even though they are often treated as 'tramps' and obstacles to 'development pemulung serve at least three important and underestimated functions. They absorb part of the otherwise state covered social costs of 'modernization' through self employment in the urban informal sector. They also shoulder part of the ecological costs of development through collecting and processing waste which otherwise the state would have to pay for in terms of waste transport and disposal. Lastly, scavengers economically contribute highly to the efficiency of the formal sector because they provide raw material from recycled waste at a comparatively low price.

Impressive record

Indeed, their record is impressive: In Jakarta alone, out of more than 21,000 m' of waste produced per day in 1988 25%, i.e. more than 5,000 m' or 2,000 tonnes, were recycled by an estimated 37,000 scavengers. In 1988, the pemulung delivered 20,000 tonnes of waste paper to 11 paper factories, and making up to 90 % of the secondary raw material in this industry. A total of US $ 48.5 million were extracted from solid waste recycling per year in comparison to just US $ 0.5 million of garbage collection fees in Jakarta alone. Today, at least 78 factories in the Jabotabek area use recovered material from waste for plastic, paper, glass and metal production. In terms of specific recovered items like glass and paper, the recycling rates are as high as 60-80%. Potential garbage such as rubber tires, construction wood, paper from office complexes, left-over food from restaurants etc. never enters the 'waste flow' because it is recovered and recycled by pemulung at source.

Recycling trade chain

Pemulung are the base link in a recycling trade chain which reaches the processing factories via small and large waste traders, the 'bos lapak' ,'bandar' and 'supplier'. The 'lapak' lives with 'his' scavengers in a patron-client relationship which implies socioeconomic dependencies but also provides a sort of legal and social security as well as health insurance. An average of 15 scavengers work for one 'bos lapak', i.e. around 2.200 'lapaks' in Jakarta provide jobs for 35,000 people at a net profit of, on average, US $ 16 per day for the 'lapak' and a daily wage of US $ 0.75 - 3.5 per day for the scavengers.

Economic dependencies

Some 'lapak' specialize in particular commodities which the scavengers collect at temporary and final dump sites and, very often, at office complexes, shopping centres, markets etc. Most 'lapaks' engage in semi-official deals with local authorities to the effect that pemulung maintain primary waste collection at the household level of major urban areas. Transport, then, is a crucial element of the 'bandar' in the recycling trade as is venture capital for the 'supplier'.

As only the 'supplier' has access to bank credits, he grants loans at high interest rates to the 'lapak' who does the same with the scavengers. While pricing and profit margins for recycling commodities are within ordinary limits, the loans constitute a system of economic dependencies handed down the trade chain that work to the disadvantage of the scavengers.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg- the micro-economic or entrepreneurial level. There are other macro-economic and ecological factors as well where the scavengers' informal recycling system saves the state or the city budget a lot of waste-related costs: Jakarta produces 711,180 tonnes of garbage per month which costs the cleansing department US $ 8.5 per ton to collect, transport and dispose of. Scavengers recycling 25% of his waste save the city Us $ 270-300,000 per month. This adds up to US $ 3.25-3.6 million per year avoided SWM costs in relation to a US $ 8.8 million SWM budget in 1990.

This calculation of avoided costs does not yet take into consideration the possibility of composting organic waste which makes up for about 60 - 75 % of the total volume of garbage. The costs for cleaning rivers or canals, for providing public health or sanitation, for balancing water, soil and air pollution would increase dramatically if the pemulung would suddenly stop recycling. In addition to avoided costs in public spending, scavengers also contribute to a more careful use of natural resources. For example in delivering 378,000 to of waste paper per year to paper factories for recycling, the pemulung save 6 million trees from being cut down.

Scavenger Development Program

The scavengers' problems lie in their insecure legal status and low social status, and their stagnant productivity and economic dependency which make them easy targets for harassment, eviction, corruption and exploitation. Other constraints like the lack of access to local decision making, loans, education, public services, or their short-term consuming patterns etc. result from this situation.

Hence, the first phase of the "Scavenger Development Program" in 1991-1992 aimed to benefit the scavengers directly and indirectly by

- lobbying for policy changes of their legal status
- improving their public image and social status
- increasing their productivity and the value-added of recycled products
- increasing their bargaining power
- fostering their participation in local decision-making processes
- developing appropriate low technologies for waste processing
- preparing for a larger-scale scavenger program within the context of an urban Integrated Resource Recovery System.

Project Implementing Teams in Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya, an NGO and two universities, in cooperation with the respective city cleansing office were assisted by a Project Policy Team from several Indonesian ministries and the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit, GTZ.

A variety of activities was implemented to pursue the stated goals. Empirical, action and policy research, exposure workshops and political dialogue with policy and opinion makers were carried out to prepare and foster policy changes.

A TV pilot film, video, development support communication and street theatre performed by pemulung themselves were meant to improve their public image, increase their own self confidence and integrate them with other social groups. Skills, management and family welfare training as well as revolving funds were geared to strengthen the organizational and productive capacities of scavengers' co-ops and self help groups.

A 'Business Development Program' in cooperation with 'bos lapak' and pemulung co-ops successfully bypassed the suppliers' loan monopoly, and increased the scavengers' bargaining power and family incomes. Appropriate low-tech waste processing approaches, especially in composting organic waste were field-tested in a 'Waste Industrial Estate'.

The Program came to the conclusion that in the long run, policies and programs should be implemented in the following areas:

- Waste reduction by decentralized recycling and composting close to the source of garbage.

- Formalization and upgrading of the recycling business including scavengers and their cooperatives or other organizations to create employment opportunities.

- Legalization of scavengers and their cooperatives - as in the case of Surabaya where scavengers and their association PMPK are recognized by the city government as 'friends of the yellow troop', i.e. the cleansing department

- Upgrading of 'lapak' through formalization, registration, legalization, credit schemes and other support on the basis of economic, city planning, and employment-related criteria.

- Installation of 'Waste Industrial Estates' for non-organic (recycling) and organic (composting) waste processing at the Kelurahan level which scavengers' cooperatives, the community, the private sector and local authorities would participate in and benefit from.


"Pemulung" or scavengers fulfill an important role in Indonesian cities, collecting and recycling about a quarter of all solid waste. In Djakarta, they supply 90% of the waste paper recycled in the city's paper factories. The social standing of the Pemulung is low - they are among the poorest members of the population and are economically exploited. A programme, currently being implemented aims to improve their rights and negotiating powers, as well as providing training opportunities.

»Pemulung« ou »ramasseurs d'ordures«. (scavengers) ont une fonction importante dans les grandes villes indonennes. Ils ramassent et recyclent environ un quart des dets solides. A Djakarta, ils livrent 90 % des besoins en vieux papiers des papeteries de la ville. Les »Pemulung« ne jouissent que d'une faible considtion sociale. Ils font partie des plus pauvres et vent exploit Un projet s'est fixe pour objectif d'amorer leur droits et leur pouvoir de nciation, et leur propose des formations.


Los "pemulung" o recogedores de basura (scavengers) desempeun importante papel en las grandes ciudades indonesias, puesto que recolectan y reciclan aproximadamente una cuarta parte de los residuos solidos. En Yakarta le suministran a las fabricas de papel un 90 por ciento de la demanda de papel usado. Los "pemulung" no gozan de aprecio social alguno. Pertenecen a la clase mas pobre y son explotados econamente. Un proyecto pretende mejorar sus derechos y su poder de negociaciofrecioles posibilidades de formacion profesional.