Communities on troubled Java river mold future from plastic waste

  • The Ciliwung is a highly polluted river running from Mount Pangrango in western Java, through the city of Bogor, before ending in the bay north of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.
  • Since 2018, Bogor Mayor Bima Arya Sugiarto has overseen an initiative to rehabilitate the river, which was awash with plastics and dangerous levels of fecal coliform bacteria.
  • Bogor is among more than 50 global cities participating in the Plastic Smart Cities, initiated by WWF to help eliminate plastics from nature.

BOGOR, Indonesia — At the age of 60, Siti Salamah started making changes at her family home in the city of Bogor, just south of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.

“We always put the kitchen waste there,” Siti told Mongabay Indonesia at her home. “I collect the plastic waste separately.”

Siti installed a unit for composting perishable waste around four months ago. Previously she would put all the household waste together for the trash collectors to pick up, typically amounting to 2-5 kilograms (4.5-11 pounds) of garbage per week. This seemingly modest amount of waste adds up at the population level.

Data from the municipal environmental department showed that Bogor, a city of more than a million people, produced 2,742 cubic meters (96,833 cubic feet) of waste daily, which is enough garbage to fill more than an Olympic-size swimming pool every day. Much of it ends up in the rivers that run through Bogor.

Managing this waste costs Bogor up to 24.1 billion rupiah ($1.5 million) per year in direct expenditure, although other indirect costs to society owing to household and commercial waste are challenging to quantify.

Since 2021, Bogor has joined more than 50 cities around the world in the Plastic Smart Cities partnership, which hopes to tackle the mountains of plastic waste that clog rivers and fester on vacant patches of land.

The Plastic Smart Cities program was initiated by WWF to reduce plastic waste by 30% before 2025. It’s one of three pillars of WWF’s No Plastic in Nature campaign, which aims to cut the use of plastic, increase its reuse, and eliminate its presence in nature.

In addition to elevating risks of flooding and ill health, plastics are a poorly understood but significant contributor to climate change. The production and burning of plastics is projected to account for up to 13% of budgeted global carbon emissions in 2050 if no action is taken.

Residents record the collection of plastic waste in Bogor City, West Java.
Residents record the collection of plastic waste in Bogor, West Java. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay Indonesia.

Breaking the mold

Much of Bogor’s waste used to end up blocking floodgates and asphyxiating wildlife in the Ciliwung River, which flows from its source on Mount Pangrango through Bogor and out to Jakarta Bay on the north coast of Java.

Research conducted on the Ciliwung from 2011-2014 found that both fecal coliform bacteria and total coliform “greatly exceed the water quality criteria at all sampling sites, except in the Ciliwung river spring.”

In 2018, the mayor of Bogor, Bima Arya Sugiarto, established the Ciliwung River Naturalization Task Force to oversee a cleanup of the river. Last year it managed a budget of around 1.5 billion rupiah ($950,000). The city has formed teams of outreach workers to change perceptions of waste management in communities along the 15-kilometer (9-mile) stretch of the Ciliwung that runs through Bogor’s administrative domain.

Dozens of outreach workers have been recruited to raise awareness of policy change in 48 priority neighborhoods, spread across several areas in Bogor.

Yudha Sugama, one of the outreach workers, told Mongabay Indonesia he believed the community work was leading to meaningful change in households.

Budi Lubis, the neighborhood leader in Cibuluh village, which is located in the north of Bogor, said many households were indifferent to waste management because of the lack of resources and infrastructure.

Officers sort waste at a waste processing site in Bogor City, West Java.
Outreach workers sort waste at a waste processing site in Bogor. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay Indonesia.

“It would be quite difficult without the Ciliwung task force,” Budi said while picking up garbage on the banks of the Ciliwung.

Like many neighborhood leaders in Bogor, Budi is working with members of the community to salvage plastic and earn income from selling discarded plastic to recyclers.

“Most of the residents here are urbanites, so much of the waste is plastic, so we can use it to generate cash income for residents,” he said.

Almost 20,000 people have been trained to sort waste in the 48 priority neighborhoods, local officials say.

A reduce, reuse and recycle waste disposal facility has been built in Bogor as part of the city’s cleanup, said Een Irawan Putra, who runs the Ciliwung task force. The goal is to process plastic into recycled raw materials that can have a positive use.

“This pilot project has been prepared to inspire further action,” Een told Mongabay Indonesia. “Because the government or one party alone cannot manage this waste. We need other parties to work together to create the best solution.”

Bogor officials say they hope this will amount to a circular economy, in which discarded plastic can be sold and put toward productive ends. Data from the Ciliwung task force’s office showed around 8 metric tons of plastic has been collected to date from the 48 Bogor neighborhoods.

An officer shows plastic waste recycling products at a waste processing site in Bogor City, West Java.
An outreach worker shows plastic waste recycling products at a waste processing site in Bogor City. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay Indonesia.

Plastic surgery

The discarded plastic that Siti now separates from perishable waste in her home might end up being put to use by someone like Tadzalli Tigin Syahidan, or Idan, an ambitious 30-year-old entrepreneur.

Idan said it bothered him to see how most consumer products were disposed of, and so he turned to innovation to help tackle the problem. He set up a consultancy, which used plastic waste to make a retention well for a bottled-water company in neighboring Sukabumi district. He said the retention well should last longer than a concrete one, and that no contamination had been detected to date.

“We are still modeling and testing, but the results are quite good and it’s safe to use,” Idan said. “And it’s actually interesting that we can take this problem of waste that pollutes rivers, and use it to store water reserves.”

Back in Bogor, Siti continues to separate her plastics and place the food waste her family generates into the home’s compost unit.

“It feels to me like this way of processing waste is satisfying,” Siti said.

Banner image: Outreach workers sort waste at a waste processing site in Bogor City, West Java. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on Jan. 18, 2023.

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Ratnaningsih, D., Nasution, E. L., Wardhani, N. T., Pitalokasari, O. D., & Fauzi, R. (2019). Water pollution trends in Ciliwung River based on water quality parameters. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 407(1). doi:10.1088/1755-1315/407/1/012006