Lingering Lines (in Varying Degrees of Tension): Tracing Waste Circuits in Yogyakarta
A landfill imaginary: heaps upon heaps of desiderata emptied onto a milky chaos: a surround smell. The stink miasma wafts under torrents of rain and heat. The nose is not a device to switch off, neither is it an organ that closes nor retracts, it has no defense mechanism. Your feet sinks into a slurry of miscellany, it becomes an imperceptible fragment with the other scraps of plastic straws, plastic bags, leftover vegetables, chunks of rubber, a styrofoam cup, a bottle cap, packaging of a laundry detergent, a head of a toothbrush, hundred particles of soil, or dirt, clumped between hairs, the plant entangles its roots. The landfill is a frontier, a flat earth without frame, horizonless.
Provisional List of Actors in the Waste Circuits of Yogyakarta
TPST Piyungan administrative office
Waste workers in TPST Piyungan
Managers or middlemen in TPST Piyungan
Insects: flies, dragonflies, beetles, ants
Toxins and leachate
Villagers around TPST Piyungan (who may or may not work in the landfill)
Gases: methane, carbon dioxide, oxygen and other simple hydrocarbons
Bacteria and viruses
Tourists; the tourism industry
Ministry of Public Works, government of the Special Region of Yogyakarta
The word ‘waste’ comes from vastus, with the same Latin root as the word ‘vast’ and its vacant neighbours, vanus, vaccus and the verb vasto, ‘to make empty or vacant, to leave unattended or uninhabited, to desert’. Early usage of the word ‘waste’ suggests a dual connotation of immensity and emptiness: unpopulated country, the enormous, desolate regions of desert or wilderness. Since waste is imbued with the terminal conditions of valuelessness, finitude and dissolution, the landfill is seen as a crypt where the final fate of things rest, a space outside of the temporal punctuations of human-time and teleology. Thus, the landfill feels unthinkable, not because it is insensible but rather, over-sensible, saturating our response-ability with its intense, reticulating sensorium that exceeds human proportion. But to read the landfill as a void, chaos, total disorganisation, is to deny any response. The reading of the landfill-as-chaos is ironically reductive, a lip service to complexity.
At the risk of romanticising the landfill as an agricultural idyll, these workers work in potentially toxic conditions under an informal wage labour system. At least half of the waste workers of the estimated 450 total are also domestic migrants, coming from towns outside of Yogyakarta, such as Monosari. They are tolerated by the landfill’s administration, rather than governed or provided for. For many, the work is an opportunity that spreads by word-of-mouth within social networks of friends and family. It was mentioned that despite state investments into medical waste disposal technologies in hospitals, some medical waste end up at TPST Piyungan due to infrastructural gaps. One waste worker we met works into the night with a headlamp. Even though the landfill is officially designated as a controlled landfill to maximise space and reduce environmental degradation, an administrator we interviewed jokingly remarked that he wasn’t certain if the landfill practiced open dumping now.
A Story of Landfill Gases, Rain
In the early morning of 21st
February 2005, villagers living near the massive Leuwigajah dumpsite in
Bandung, Indonesia awoke to the sound of three muffled blasts. In an avalanche
of melting plastic, fire and refuse, 143 people and 71 houses were buried under
trash heap that extended 1000 metres and rose up to 9 metres. The residents
were mostly waste workers who picked daily at the dumpsite. The avalanche has
been caused by an unexpected collaboration of aerobic bacteria, gas buildup
within the waste mass and heavy rainfall. National Garbage Care Day held on 21st
February was initiated in remembrance of this incident.
A Story of Villagers around TPST
A stream of garbage trucks adds
500 tonnes of waste into TPST Piyungan daily. In 2015, villagers around the
landfill barricaded its entrance for a few days, seeking higher compensation
from the state. The act of protest caused an administrative shift of landfill
from the municipal authority to the regional government. The administration not
only manages technical issues within the landfill, but more so recently, they
mediate social conflicts. On the car ride to the landfill, we saw a banner that
wrote: “Bantul: where dreams come to die.”
At Pasar Ngasem, garbage collectors sorted assiduously on top of a truck, compressing unruly clumps of stuff into a packed heap. Pak pointed out a collector’s motorcycle installed with baskets and frames, which were filled with potentially valuable items, such as spare parts, recyclables and other paraphernalia, from the waste they filter through. Not everything in the bin goes to rest at the landfill. Some end up at Pasar Senthir, a secondhand market that sells an array of tchotchkes, wholes and their parts, priced on a whim and lowered on your bargaining tactics. No item is too broken or dirty to be loved here. Others end up at ‘waste banks’, municipal recycling stations where residents could deposit their recyclables for some money. Even at TPST Piyungan, plastics of every assortment are sold to recycling companies to make other plastic bags or asphalt for road works. But where exactly are these recycling companies, the waste worker we interviewed did not know.
“I leave the trash bags on the front yard every morning, where they are cleared every Friday. And afterwards—“ To begin to think through waste is to take narrative risks, to take imaginative leaps beyond the capitalist plot of manufacture-use-disposal, and to sense them as things that shimmer across regimes of value, desire and utility. To render a moving thing: where does it go, where does it go. It is an ethics of sensing that thaws the imaginary of a frozen landfill, thinking in entangled lines, storylines, that tendril and spread, tighten and slacken with one another. Could we begin to diagram waste circuits as a bundle of lines, rather than a network of terminal points with assumed connections. Pulling at one thread reveals the knots and loops of many others. Rather than a black hole of modernity that the lifeline of all things lead to, take the landfill as a single line among other lines in media res, middling around. And let its perfume linger awhile.