The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL – AND SLOW © Duncan Graham 2006

It’s the curse of the consumer society: Garbage, and how to get rid of it – economically, hygienically and fast.

In Surabaya – and many other cities – it works like this: Depending on the area families pay a regular monthly sum (usually around Rp 30,000 to Rp 50,000 (US $3 – $5) to the elected Rukun Tetangga (RT) local neighbourhood association.

The RT is responsible for security and basic services – including garbage collection. If the system is well run householders get a daily visit by a man pulling a large high-sided barrow. When full this is wheeled to a central collection point and the muck heaved by hand into a container for later trucking to a landfill site.

Only in the up-market gated suburbs is any attempt made to cover the garbage. Normally it’s open to rats, cats, flies, scavengers and the weather. Delays in pick-ups (deliberate and accidental) sometimes result in left garbage composting or spilling into the street.

A few disciplined families separate their organic leftovers. Most don’t, so last night’s inedible bakso (meat ball soup) goes into the same bin as the plastic bags, newspapers, broken china, grass clippings and what the cat brought home.

Official figures are old and dodgy but the best guess is that Surabaya generates about 3,000 tonnes of garbage every day – with around 70 per cent domestic refuse.

Enter conservationist Satrijo Wiweko (Koko) who used to work for the Seloliman Environmental Education Centre near Mojokerto, about 90 minutes drive south of Surabaya. The centre promotes sustainable agriculture and has been running since 1991.

Koko reasoned that a more efficient and sanitary way of quitting garbage would be to cut out the central transfer points and the haul across the city spreading the stench and loose litter - and process the stuff at the local level.

It seemed like a good idea, and it probably is. But despite the proven advantages it has still to catch on – though not for want of energy.

Koko is a jolly, solid tenacious fellow with the build of a bar bouncer and the resilience which normally goes with that job. It’s a vital quality – he may not be getting any physical knocks but he receives plenty of knock-backs in his mission to clean up Surabaya.

Being Java these rejections aren’t into his face. No-one mutters: ‘You and your notions are cuckoo.’ Instead they smile, say they’re interested and that they’ll look into it.

Mirror men.

Koko works for Yayasan Sahabat Lingkungan (YSL - Foundation for a Friendly Environment). Four years ago he decided something more practical than banners and brochures was needed.

He put his hands into his pockets, pulled out Rp 20 million (US $2,000) and in a Surabaya kampung built a demonstration rubbish recycle pilot plant to say: No need to read or listen to me. Look and learn. Here’s proof. This is how it can be done.

“Every day we get 20 barrows of garbage from the surrounding streets,” he said. “We also receive all the refuse from the local market. We sort this into bins for glass, plastic, paper, cardboard, aluminium, metal, bones and wood.

“About 70 per cent of the garbage is organic and we use this to make compost. Every month we earn about Rp 8 million (US $850) selling compost and the other materials for recycling.

“We’ve set this up as a working model and are constantly visited by government officials who admire what we’re doing and write reports. But very little happens.

“It’s difficult to implement change in Indonesia when people think the old way of doing things is OK.”

His system is hardly rocket science: A 90 square metre slightly sloping concrete pad with a gutter running down the middle. A roof to keep off the rain and enough space to sort the incoming garbage.

Organic material is piled on the pad, covered with soil and watered. An electronic probe is used to check the temperature. After a month of rotting and turning the dry compost is packed in 50-kilogram bins along with some rice husks for aerating. These are sold to gardeners for Rp 90,000 (US $9.50) a unit.

Clucky hens and randy cocks, garrulous geese and custard-yellow goslings scratch through the piles seeking edibles. Which for a kampung chicken is just about anything. They amuse guests and keep fly numbers down. When fat enough they’ll make their own contribution to income.

When The Jakarta Post visited the project a dozen impressed undergraduates from Surabaya’s two most prestigious public tertiary institutions – Universitas Airlangga and Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (November 10 Institute of Technology -ITS) were taking notes.

Said Airlangga chemistry student Haning Meilia: “Garbage disposal is an issue which worries us and which we discuss in class. Not everyone understands that much rubbish can be recycled.

“People keep their homes clean but don’t always worry about the environment beyond the gate. Maybe it’s a matter of education. In my boarding house we separate the organic waste and make compost.”

“It’s the government’s job to get the people to keep the environment clean,” said Airlangga economics student Gunawan Aribowo. “There’s money to be made in rubbish. Making compost is cheap and simple.”

Koko’s composting and recycling project isn’t the only show in town. Slums near the railway lines specialise in sorting rubbish, but don’t compost.

A multinational has been backing a similar system which uses machines to shred green material. But why aren’t these projects commonplace?

“There are many factors involved,” said Haning. “People are lazy and don’t want to get involved. It’s a bit smelly and people don’t like that. (The smell was mild and certainly much better than the raw garbage. The final compost was odourless.)

“The government should be getting involved but the problem is the bureaucracy. It’s not responsive. There’s no coordination.

“You need people like Mr Koko to push ideas like this, to show people how it can be done.”

And is he dismayed at the slow progress? Koko, the ever-patient, shrugged and smiled: “There are about eight units like this so far. Nothing changes quickly in Indonesia.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 August 06)


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