Buzzing black flies and rows of trays full of maggots filled a small warehouse in the city of Bandung in West Java, Indonesia. Also inside were heaps of decomposing organic waste collected from Sukamiskin, a neighborhood that calls itself “garbage-free.”
It’s only a three-hour drive from the capital Jakarta but the scene in this particular area is markedly different. The neighborhood is clean, with no garbage piling on the street, even though there are no communal waste bins. The Biotechnology and Bioscience Development Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Bandung, said that Sukamiskin residents agreed to get rid of collective garbage cans to prevent people from throwing out their trash without segregating them.
Indonesia, a country with a serious plastic waste problem, is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think zero waste, but it actually has pockets of communities pushing for sustainability, just like there are in other densely populated areas around the world. It’s a tall order, especially during a pandemic.
According to Entis Sutisna, the head of a community unit in Bandung’s Leuwigajah subdistrict, they initially struggled to educate residents on sustainability. To this day, there are still a few homes which refuse to follow the system.
Many parts of Bandung are still littered with garbage, like other big cities in Indonesia, but he added that, for the most part, Sukamiskin residents have embraced a circular waste system in their daily routine. Part of this is the insect-filled waste management center known as the “Maggot House,” where organic waste (like food) collected from residents are crushed into a mush using shredders and fed to maggots, reducing the amount of waste hauled to landfills. Dried dead maggots are then used as organic fertilizer or high-protein food for livestock, whose meat is cooked and eaten by humans, cycling back to where it all started.
“A gram of black soldier fly eggs can yield 3 kilograms of maggots. One kilogram of maggots alone can eat approximately 10 kilograms of rubbish in its lifetime,” Angga, who manages the Maggot House and like many Indonesians goes by only one name, told VICE.
The average maggot can consume up to four times its weight before turning into larvae in about a week’s time and, eventually, into a fly. Thanks to these insects, facilities like the Maggot House can process nearly 10 tonnes of waste every day.
This is all part of Bandung’s sustainability efforts that started in 2018, years after a trash-related tragedy. In February 2005, a landslide at the city’s only landfill, located in Leuwigajah, led to explosions triggered by the sudden release of methane gas from the decomposing trash, killing at least 140 people and injuring many more.
Dedy Dharmawan, from the Bandung Environment and Health Agency, said that current Mayor Oded Muhammad Danial wanted to avoid this from ever happening again.
“Bandung has a complicated waste problem. Our only landfill was temporarily unable to operate due to [the Leuwigajah tragedy]. Trash was piling up along the road because they couldn’t be picked up. The silver lining to this situation was that residents became more creative in dealing with the issue,” Dharmawan told VICE.
Today, Leuwigajah also uses maggots to manage organic waste. Along with Sukamiskin and eight other districts, it pioneered the circular waste system in Bandung. They all play a huge part in decreasing the volume of trash the city sends to landfills. As of February 2021, Bandung sent about 1,332 tonnes of waste to landfills every day, nearly a third less than in 2019.
“Before we separated organic waste and processed them using maggots, there were at least two garbage trucks carrying our trash every month. It’s now less than one truck,” Sutisna said.
“Before we separated organic waste and processed them using maggots, there were at least two garbage trucks carrying our trash every month. It’s now less than one truck.”
The local government provided organic waste bins to each household, so residents can separate biodegradables from non-biodegradables. This makes it easier to process organic waste and prepare solid waste for recycling.
Of course, this strategy is not unique to Indonesia. Countries around the world have centers just like the Maggot House to manage organic waste. Segregation is one of the pillars of environmental sustainability and a foundation in many zero waste initiatives around the world, like the Philippines.
Tricycles roll out to the streets of Maimpis, a small village in San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines, at around 8:00 in the morning. Riding the three-wheeled rickshaws, trash pickers go from house to house to collect garbage which residents have segregated. They look through each bag to check for stowaways—soda bottles with leftover takeout, banana peels with styrofoam packaging—and move them to the repurposed boxes or rice sacks where they rightly belong. Trash is meant to be collected three times a week in accessible areas and at least once a week in others. The streets in Maimpis, and many residential villages like it across the country, are so narrow that trucks can’t get through, but the ground-level trash collection is crucial, environmentalists and local officials say, for San Fernando to fulfill its commitment to sustainability.
“[From] barangays (villages) to little communities, even houses, we go there to teach people how to properly manage their waste,” Marilen Malabanan, the supervising environmental management specialist of the City Environment and Natural Resources Office of San Fernando, told VICE.
The city jump-started its zero waste efforts when it partnered up with the non-governmental organization Mother Earth Foundation in 2011. Now, all 35 of its villages have their own materials recovery facility (MRF) where waste undergoes final sorting, segregation, composting, and recycling.
Some plastics are used in cement manufacturing, while food waste is turned into compost and fertilizer. What’s left is taken to a sanitary landfill. San Fernando reported that its waste diversion rate, or its ability to reduce the trash going into landfills, was at 12 percent in 2012 but at 73 percent by 2015. In comparison, the rate diversion in Metro Manila that same year was only 48 percent, according to the Senate Economic Planning Office.
San Fernando is not breaking any new ground. All their policies, from residents segregating to the MRFs, are all based on well-known environmental practices stipulated in the Philippines’ Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, which emphasizes the responsibility of small communities in sustainability efforts—segregation must start from the source and each village should have its own MRF. But many cities in the Philippines fail to follow the law for various reasons—lack of space, community participation, or political will—making even San Fernando’s small improvements stand out.
In 2014, San Fernando enacted a plastic-free ordinance that bans the use of styrofoam for food and regulates the use of plastic bags while encouraging reusable alternatives. Repeat violators could face a cancelation of their business permit. The city eventually implemented a total ban on plastic bags in 2015.
“Since our plastic ordinance, those who go to the market have fishnets and bring cloth bags,” Malabanan said.
She grew up in San Fernando and remembers a time when her mother and grandmother would go to the market with fishnets and a bayong or weaved bag for the things they buy. “When you’d buy rice… it was wrapped in paper,” she recalled. But eventually, they started leaving the house without the reusable bags and would return carrying a bunch of plastic. The current eco-bag movement, she said, is like going back to the days of the bayong.
The city’s population is officially just over 300,000 but as the capital city of Pampanga and the site of many regional offices, Malabanan said its daytime population is usually closer to 1 million. More people means more trash, so proper waste management is crucial.
“For San Fernando, the initiative of doing the zero waste program was initiated by the city,” Maricon Alvarez, a program manager from Mother Earth Foundation, said. She was one of the people who helped San Fernando establish its zero waste programs.
“It wasn’t injected into them. They were the ones who looked for a solution, we just happened to meet them and they were willing to invest and really willing to embrace zero waste as a principle and as a mantra for their solid waste management program.”
The city provided villages with collection equipment and incentivizes those who follow solid waste management policies, as a way to encourage sustainability at the community level, Malabanan said.
“Now, villages have no reason not to follow the law,” she said. “If the household doesn’t follow, the village will have a difficult time. If the village has a difficult time, the city will have a difficult time.”
But, like in Indonesia, implementation remains uneven.
Though many residents have learned to carry their own reusable bags, Alvarez said visitors are not as obedient. “They know you’re not from San Fernando if you’re carrying a plastic bag or if you don’t have an eco bag,” she said.
During a visit in May, VICE spotted street vendors and corner stores using plastic bags. Some use a thin variety called “labo,” which are technically permitted, but others also use “sando bags” or those with handles, despite the ban. There were also plastic straws in trash bags on the street. Most of the trash collected in one gated community were not segregated, which categorized them as residual waste to be dumped in a landfill—the very thing sustainability efforts are trying to avoid.
While some trash pickers were vigilant about checking if household waste were properly segregated, others still fall back to the “collect and dump” method of mixing all kinds of waste, and violators were not always warned.
“Even though we already have a plastic-free ordinance… there are still lapses in the implementation and enforcement,” Maimpis village councilor Jojo Lordan told VICE. “There are always people who don’t follow, we can’t perfect it.”
The pandemic has also become an additional obstacle for sustainability efforts.
At a time when social contact is limited, on the ground efforts are limited too. Officials can’t spot-check villages as often as they used to and programs that educate people on the environment have mostly stopped. Lordan said that they do call out violators and educate them on proper waste management, but that priorities have shifted since the pandemic started.
“[People say] ‘Is this really what’s important right now? What’s important is the rumbling in our stomachs—to relieve this,’” Lordan said.
Malabanan said that some people even started using plastics again, thinking it’s safer than cloth bags. The types of trash they produce have changed too, as most parts of the Philippines still require face masks and face shields in public spaces. “Face masks and face shields litter the ground,” Malabanan said, adding that they have since instructed people to separate and label COVID-19-related waste.
Bengaluru, a city in India's southern state of Karnataka, is known as the “Garden City.” Thanks to its cool tropical climate, people used to say that it’s a place where no one needs an air conditioner. But over the years, industrialization has changed the city’s ecological balance. India’s IT boom led to software companies settling in Bengaluru, giving way to more jobs, and, naturally, more people.
In a 2017 study, the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Ecological Sciences, declared Bengaluru a “dead city” due to its unprecedented rapid urbanization. The city’s unplanned growth gave way to poor waste management which included solid and liquid waste being dumped in lakes. More recently, there’s been a rise in plastic packaging due to increased reliance on e-commerce platforms.
According to Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the civic body responsible for the city’s health, hygiene, trade and infrastructure, Bengaluru generates over 3,000 to 3,500 tonnes of solid waste every day. A 2016 study by the Indian Institute of Science found that 30 percent of the city’s municipal waste is collected by the BBMP directly, while the rest is collected and transported through contractors. Like the tragedy in Indonesia's Bandung, several lakes in Bengaluru have caught fire because of methane from decomposing waste.
The organization Hasiru Dala was formed in 2010 to address these problems. It started as a group of like-minded people who discussed environmental policies and waste management but, as time went by, they started working directly with waste pickers too.
The group said they now work with over 26,000 waste pickers across Karnataka who educate residents on waste management. They’ve also set up zero waste facilities in Mysuru, a town 145 kilometres from Bengaluru, and led ocean cleanups in the neighboring coastal town of Mangaluru. Their efforts are focused on the Bengaluru neighborhoods J.P. Nagar, Rajajinagar, and Mahalaxmi Layout, where they said they’ve managed to make 90 percent of homes segregate their trash.
In J.P. Nagar, which has a population of about 28,846, according to the 2011 census, organic waste is collected and sent to a nearby lane composting facility that handles over 70 households from one block.
“When we first started our work, people knew very little about waste segregation,” said Nirmala Shekhar, a project manager for Hasiru Dala. “In July 2019, out of the 25 tonnes of waste we collected from one neighborhood, J.P. Nagar, only 3 tonnes could be composted as wet waste. The remaining went to the landfill.”
With the help of resident volunteers, Shekhar said households now manage to compost and recycle more than 50 percent of their waste. In the case of J.P. Nagar, 71 percent of the waste has been diverted from landfills, a big increase from 2019, when the waste diversion rate was 12 percent.
The group plans to expand in other parts of Karnataka and other South Indian states but as it is in the Philippines and many other countries around the world, initiatives were put on hold due to the pandemic.
India is just recovering from a deadly second COVID-19 wave that devastated the country in April and May. At its peak, the number of average daily cases in India reached around 400,000. This has fallen to just over 50,000 cases but the country is not completely out of the woods yet as it still recorded more cases than any other nation in June.
So, Hasiru Dala turned their focus to helping out Bengaluru’s underprivileged waste workers and laborers. The group’s social media accounts are filled with memorials for waste pickers who have died of COVID-19. Several of them were unable to secure a hospital bed or died of medical negligence.
“The waste workers and sanitation workers are our priority since they are systematically discriminated against on the basis of their socio-economic status and their caste,” Shekhar explained. “We have limited resources, and for now, we’re using them for COVID relief. Our goal is to distribute 60,000 ration kits by the end of the year and we’re almost halfway there.”
The group hopes to return to their original mission of promoting sustainability once the pandemic situation gets better.
“The biggest challenge for us has been filling in administrative gaps, but we are hopeful about returning to our sustainability efforts soon,” Shekhar said. “The support from citizens and volunteers has kept us going. We hope to bring a bigger impact to Bengaluru’s waste disposal systems one day.”
In Indonesia, the Philippines, and India, sustainability is an ongoing process. And experts say that, most of the time, it has nothing to do with achieving zero waste.
To Dharmawan from the Bandung Environment and Health Agency, the goal is to change people’s habits and behavior, for them to simply learn to be more responsible with their trash.
Meanwhile, Alvarez, from the Philippines’ Mother Earth Foundation, described it as a journey.
“Despite my seven years of working with [Mother Earth Foundation], actually, I’m still learning how to really have a zero waste lifestyle,” she said. “Some people think zero waste means no trash. Actually, for me, the meaning of zero waste is no excess.”
This story was made possible by the BFFP-GAIA Media Fellowship Grant.
With reporting from Alecs Ongcal.