Asia's Toughest Jobs: The garbage collector who keeps Indonesia clean

Asia's Toughest Jobs: The garbage collector who keeps Indonesia clean

Indonesia is one of the top waste producers in the world, generating 64 million tonnes of waste annually. Channel NewsAsia’s Pichayada Promchertchoo travels to its capital Jakarta to find out what it takes to keep the city clean.

Eman Sulaiman has been collecting garbage in Jakarta for nearly four decades, a job that earns him just above US$50 a month. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

JAKARTA: The dumpsite reeks of rotten garbage but Eman Sulaiman is oblivious to the stench. This is what most of his life has smelled like. The elderly garbage collector has become used to it.

In the shade, he is catching his breath after a long walk. Mountains of waste tower above his frail, withered body. Both knees are stiff and his feet, clad in rubber boots, are sore. Yet, he cannot rest. There are still hours to go and many bins to empty before the day is over.

“I’m so tired. But it’s better than having no job,” Sulaiman says. He does not know when he was born but appears to be in his late sixties. His face is wrinkled and tired, his hair thin and grey.

Nearby, a brown tabby cat tucks into a rotting fish head, unconcerned by the crawling worms in nearby murky puddles.

This has been Sulaiman’s workplace for the past 36 years. It is the only job he could find after his small business was forced to close.

“When I first started this job, I found it very disgusting. People throw away all sorts of things, even dead animals. The sight and smell made me want to vomit. I couldn’t eat for weeks.”

“But thank God, I’m used to it now.”

Sulaiman fills up his handcart with garbage. When it is full, the cart can weigh more than 90 kilogrammes. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

The sun is burning and Sulaiman is sticky with sweat. For hours, he has been pulling his garbage cart through crowded neighbourhoods in North Jakarta, emptying hundreds of bins with his bare hands.

The two-wheeled vehicle can weigh more than 90 kilogrammes when it is full of rubbish. To stop it from weighing him down, Sulaiman has to tie its front part to his chest with a nylon rope, which leaves a mark on his skin.

Work is difficult with his old age and feeble limbs. But the need for money keeps him going - US$53 a month for working seven days a week. Most of the income goes on cheap food – rice, eggs and instant noodles – and a rent of US$15 a month for a 3x2 square metre shack in a slum.

“I’m so tired. But it’s better than having no job." (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Every dollar he earns comes with sweat and exhaustion. But besides the physical strain, Sulaiman also has to contend with the rubbish he collects, anything from rotten food crawling with maggots to soiled tissue paper and plastic bottles filled with urine.

“They’re disgusting even to look at. But I have to pick them up with my hands. What can I do? It’s my job.”


As Indonesia grows more urbanised, its waste piles up. Annually, the Southeast Asian nation produces 64 million tonnes of waste, according to its Environment and Forestry Ministry. Fourteen per cent of the total amount is plastic, making it the world’s second biggest contributor of plastic waste in the oceans, after China.

“Globally, waste volumes are increasing quickly – even faster than the rate of urbanisation,” the World Bank reported in its global review of solid waste management.

Annually, Indonesia produces 64 million tonnes of waste, according to its Environment and Forestry Ministry. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

On average, cities around the world collectively produce 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste every year. By 2025, the World Bank estimates that volume will hit 2.2 billion tonnes and increase waste management costs by more than four times for lower-middle income countries such as Indonesia.

When it comes to waste disposal, the country mostly relies on landfill; 69 per cent of its waste ends up being buried. According to the Environment and Forestry Ministry, only 10 per cent of its disposal sites are equipped with sanitary landfill technologies.


To cope with the growing amount of trash, the Indonesian government has urged local communities to set up Bank Sampah or Waste Banks to help improve waste management nationwide.

The programme decentralises the current process by allowing residents to turn pre-sorted household waste into cash at collection points in their neighbourhoods. Deposited organic waste is then turned into compost while non-organic items are reused or recycled.

A brown tabby cat stands next to a rotting fish head at a dumpsite where Sulaiman works. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

In March, Central Jakarta reported a 35 per cent drop in garbage volume, thanks to almost 400 waste banks in the area.

However, the capital’s population of more than 10 million people continues to produce waste, which is estimated at 7,000 tonnes per day. A lack of garbage trucks and quality trash disposal sites has also contributed to the city’s limited capability to manage its waste.


Back in North Jakarta, Sulaiman is hard at work. His back bends and his arms tense up as he pulls the heavy handcart through the alleyways in RW13 – a densely populated area near Angke Bawah River.

Sulaiman works every day from 7am until late afternoon, emptying hundreds of rubbish. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Every day, some 100 families rely on him to keep their neighbourhoods clean, as the streets are too small for garbage trucks.

“Sulaiman is hard-working, punctual and kind. He always shows up. Nobody can compare to him,” says a local resident, Ningrat.

From 7am to late afternoon, the garbage collector walks and pulls his cart and makes sure no rubbish bins are left unclean.

"I'm old now. So I wish I could rest." (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

His work must be done fast to keep up with the mounting household waste. The only time he can rest is during his lunchbreak, which cannot be longer than 90 minutes.

“Otherwise, the garbage will be swarming with flies and people will start looking for me.”

Asked when he will stop working, Sulaiman says with a smile: “I have no plan to stop yet. But I’m old now. So I wish I could rest.” 

Follow Pichayada Promchertchoo on Twitter @PichayadaCNA

Source: CNA/pp