Indonesia, “Treasure in the Trash”

A year ago, North Sumengko in East Java, Indonesia was a village of maize and rice fields. Today, there are piles of plastic waste, heaped into mounds two meters high in the middle of the road, collecting in slopes and valleys of front-yard scrap shops, scattered along the roadsides or smoldering in sprawling makeshift dumps among banana trees and soot-covered bamboo stands.

As countries like Malaysia and Thailand tightened their laws around importing plastic waste and increased enforcement, the Indonesian government has yet to take action against the incoming scourge of plastic waste, and financial insecurity in the country has created an opening for the informal plastic waste industry.

Picking through the heaps of plastic scrap has become a communal cottage industry. Men and women shaded under woven conical hats crouch around the rim of a hill of shredded plastic scrap. They sift through the strips of plastic, pulling out the last bits of recyclable material: empty St. Ives lotion bottles, crushed cans of Michelob Ultra or Arizona Sweet Tea. Some damp Gatorade labels cling to dingy, clear plastic bottles. They separate thick aluminum from thin and toss them into buckets to be picked up by the scrap haulers.

The trash that can’t be recycled is gathered into a wheelbarrow and dumped into their backyards.

Like the poor villages of China before it, middlemen and brokers are exploiting poverty in rural Indonesia, offering money in exchange for environmental pollution. Families are asked to choose between the immediacy of work and the abstraction of harm they can’t see.

A few times a week, a moneychanger on a motorcycle rides up to the waste pickers to exchange any foreign currency they find, like treasure in the imported trash. It’s a catalog of the countries sending plastic scrap to rural Indonesia: there are dollar bills from the United States, Canada and Australia, riyals from Saudi Arabia, Korean won and Russian rubles. Most of all, there are euros.

Places like this are at the end of the line of a multibillion-dollar global recycling industry that starts in the household and industrial waste bins of developed countries, like the United States and Germany. It ends in the yards of waste pickers, like the ones in North Sumengko, Indonesia, who are left to deal with the problem that wealthy countries have failed to solve—how to get rid of the heaps of unrecyclable, dirty plastic waste generated by modern consumption. For the most part, they do what’s easiest: they burn it.

Villagers show foreign currency from US, UK and New Zealand that they found in discarded imported plastic that was dumped there by a nearby paper recycling company whose imported paper was contaminated with plastic, in Sumengko Village, near Gresik, Surabaya, Indonesia on 22nd February, 2019.

“Please Tell the United Nations”

Didek Heriyanto, known as Polo Hari, is the elected village chief of North Sumengko. He has spoken to people in the village who complained about the growing problem of plastic pollution.

In August 2018, he sent a letter of objection to the provincial government of Gresik, complaining about the mafia, the smell, and the water contamination. He collected signatures of the people in the village demanding action.

He is still waiting.

Didik poses for a portrait outside a relatives home, in Sumengko Village, near Gresik, Surabaya, Indonesia on 21st February, 2019.

Meanwhile, he says the mafia has intimidated him, delivered verbal threats. They told him, “don’t disturb this business of ours.” He blames the mafia for creating conflict in the village by taking advantage of the economic situation of the poorer villagers.

He does not blame the village waste pickers; he wants the government to do something about what he considers hazardous waste. He believes the paper companies who are importing the plastic waste into Gresik should accept responsibility for disposing of the waste, rather than dumping into his village, leaving the people with no choice but to burn it.

The plastic waste picking industry has only been in his part of Indonesia for less than a year. He’s very worried that it will get bigger. As it expands, he’s concerned the health problems will get worse, as well as the environmental contamination. But to stop it, he says he is up against forces more powerful than he is. The police and the government back up the plastic scrapping businesses. “That’s why people like me can’t do anything.”

Polo Hari does not know who else to turn to. He feels that the Indonesian government is complicit in a form of oppression being imposed on his people that he likens to colonization.


The plastic scrapping industry in North Sumengko may be new—operations at the paper company have expanded since China’s ban—but in the next village, they have been processing plastics for a decade. Local leaders worry that the problems there will be the future of North Sumengko.

Most of the houses in South Sumengko are filled with plastic scrap, some of it sorted, others piled into heaps, for burning.

Suri, 50, lives in South Sumengko. Her next door neighbors are plastic waste pickers, and that afternoon, a pile of plastic was burning next to the road in front of their house.

Suri says her headaches are getting worse, and it’s getting harder to breathe. Her skin is breaking out in itchy rashes. In the last year, she’s been to the hospital three times. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Suri said. The first time the doctors thought she was suffering a heart attack. They did a cardiogram, but the results came back fine, “but I could not breathe,” she said. They put her on an oxygen tank and let her breathe through a nebulizer. For the first time in months, she said, she felt comfort.

Suri said her health problems often have her thinking about her nephew. He was ten years old when he died suddenly four years ago. The doctors didn’t give an explanation, but Suri’s family think it might have been a tumor or cancer. Another relative died of a heart attack and respiratory problems. The air at the time they died was so dark and smoky, Suri said. She believes it was the burning trash that killed them.

“Please tell the United Nations,” he said. “I just want to be healthy, my people and my country.”


Sumengko isn’t the final stop for the plastic waste. Plastics that cannot be recycled because they are soiled, too expensive to recycle, or are simply non-recyclable, like potato chip bags, plastic food packaging, or bubble wrap are sent to East Java’s local tofu factories in Kelangan Teropodo.

At one of the tofu factories, clouds of steam engulf the laborers, who are draining soy milk in silken sheets, forming the tofu in rectangular wooden molds, or packing the stiff squares into plastic bags for sale.

In the back, candy wrappers litter the floor like dead leaves. Plastic trash, the kind sifted out by the waste pickers in Sumengko and Bangun, is shoveled into a makeshift metal furnace and burned as fuel. Smoke billowed from the chimney.

A worker stokes a boiler using imported plastic waste as fuel in a tofu factory, near Gresik, Surabaya, Indonesia on 22nd February, 2019.