Banking on Garbage to Transform Communities

By Sagita Adesywi, ChildFund Indonesia

“People here littered everywhere, without thought,” says Sulastri, a preschool teacher in Indonesia. “Our neighborhood looked dirty and unhealthy.”

As in many developing countries, garbage is a highly visible part of Indonesia’s landscape. With one of the world’s largest populations, waste management there is an ongoing challenge, even in affluent areas. In neighborhoods where poverty has a stronghold, public services like garbage removal are at best inconsistent and often absent. So, families dispose of garbage wherever they can or even burn it by the roadside. The environment becomes not only unpleasant but downright dangerous.

This was how things were in Tandang village, Semarang, Central Java, until community members set out to make changes.

Responding to residents’ concern about their neighborhood, ChildFund worked through its local partner organization in Semarang, KOMPASS, to adapt an initiative that Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment had pioneered in other cities: garbage banks, which encourage communities to make the most of household garbage.

sorting garbage

Sulastri (right) sorts through plastic waste at the garbage bank.

Garbage banks decrease environmental pollution, especially inorganic waste, by providing community members with incentives to sort garbage by type and value, and to ensure that each type arrives at the appropriate destination for recycling. (Organic garbage is collected by the environmental city services and processed into compost.) Garbage banks usually run in public buildings as neighborhood centers for waste management.

To launch the program in Tandang, staff from KOMPASS met with village heads and community members to introduce the concept and then to form volunteer garbage bank committees. Through KOMPASS, ChildFund provided the volunteers with training on how to handle and process inorganic waste, especially plastics, which are sold to plastics manufacturers.

Participants have garbage bank accounts. KOMPASS provided seed money on behalf of the 351 sponsored children in the area, so each child has USD $1 as his or her first deposit on an account at one of Tandang’s two garbage banks.

So, how do garbage banks work?

Using collection bags provided by the program, people bring plastic bottles, used newspapers and many other things they don’t use any more. Each type of waste is assigned monetary value. This money is then deposited into the individuals’ accounts at the garbage bank, later available to be withdrawn as cash.

“When we did our first training for the mothers’ groups, some of them were quite stressed,” says Agus, the head of one of the banks. “They thought they would need to sort the garbage in a dirty place. When they saw that the garbage bank is actually run in a clean house with windows for air circulation, they felt relieved.”

“I knew about the garbage bank from my wife,” says Wadi, a community member. “We used to just throw away anything. Now, we learn to sort it all. People also took initiative by making their own bags to deposit the waste to the bank.”

Indonesia garbage bank

Wadi and his daughter sort garbage at home.

That’s not all they have made. The ChildFund-supported garbage banks have taken the program a step further: Community members turn garbage into creative, sellable products — for example, bags made from plastic detergent sachets. With training from KOMPASS (and with a sewing machine KOMPASS also provided), people are transforming garbage into economic gain. As community members have learned to be more creative in processing waste, they have come to see waste as a resource.

“The neighborhood automatically becomes cleaner too,” Agus adds. “If we have the garbage bank but the surroundings are still dirty, it’s very contradictory. The neighborhood is also becoming greener now, because people are also encouraged to plant trees in pots made from vegetable oil plastic bags. ChildFund provided us with the seeds.”

“People are more aware that the environment is very connected to their own health,” says preschool teacher Sulastri, who is also a member of the garbage bank committee. “They used to just litter everywhere and did not understand the impact of waste, so they would just throw away everything. Now they know that we can sort inorganic waste and make it into creative products.”

The garbage bank initiative not only brings extra cash, but it also helps communities become cleaner, nicer and healthier places to live, which is exactly what children need. “There were many flies and mosquitoes in the gutters as people just threw garbage into them,” says Sulastri. “When we litter, we create a breeding space for mosquitoes. The garbage bank promotes a healthy lifestyle, and it reduces the risk of dengue and diarrhea too.”

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