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.

A 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 
  • Caretakers 
  • ‘Weeds’
  • Insects: flies, dragonflies, beetles, ants 
  • ‘Pests’ 
  • Toxins and leachate 
  • Villagers around TPST Piyungan (who may or may not work in the landfill)
  • Cattle 
  • Recycling companies 
  • 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 
  • Consumers 
  • Tropical weather 
  • Etcetera

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.

On soft/WALL/studs’ research period in Yogyakarta with Cemeti, various constellations of the group visited TPST Piyungan (Tempat Pembuangan Sampah Terpadu, or integrated waste treatment plant) to study the region’s waste cultures, communities and infrastructure. Less than a timeless landscape, TPST Piyungan was bustling with activity. Clusters of waste workers, a sickle in their hand, gleaned the banks of the landfill for aluminium tins, glass bottles and plastics of all variety. Makeshift huts of canvas, umbrellas and spare wood served as sorting stations. Herds of goats and cows devotionally grazed the surface of the landfill, with plants flourished along its streams, salvaging the leftovers of nutrient modernity.

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 and Bacteria

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.
Speaking to the administrator, it became clearer that TPST Piyungan was far from its frontier imaginary. Yet, this imaginary returns to haunt in the construction of landfills. Started in 1995, TPST Piyungan receives waste from most of the Special Region of Yogyakarta, including Bantul, Sleman and Yogyakarta city, and was slated to reach maximum capacity in 2012. A landfill can only be built 2 km away from residents, away from water sources, power and telecommunication lines. To prevent the runoff of leachate into the region’s groundwater, the landfill must be built at lower elevations, like the southern Bantul city. Such design considerations made Piyungan a near-suitable site, save several inconvenient footnotes: there were villagers in the radius of the proposed site; three of five houses in the area were acquired by the state (with the details of the two other ‘acquisitions’ left unexplicated); as well as existing ecologies within the site itself. Locals joke that Bantul is the cleanest city in the entire region, even though the city collects its waste. The frontier imaginary is embedded in waste infrastructure that must render its mechanisms opaque: out of sight, out of mind. Pak Sorono, the caretaker of Cemeti, informed me that rubbish from Cemeti used to be disposed at a dump in the vicinity of Alun Alun Kidul, the city’s square, which is a popular tourist area. In recent years, the dump has been closed, which means that Pak must travel 10 minutes by motorcycle to Pasar Ngasem to take out the trash. The tourist city strains itself, with more and more tears on its urban fabric as it frantically hides the seams.

A Story of Villagers around TPST Piyungan

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.

Like the dumps, waste banks and secondhand markets scattered across the city, Piyungan is one node of filtration that allows waste to saunter in and out of the circuit of overlapping value regimes. Asking the same question (“where does this go afterwards?”) to garbage collectors, caretakers and sanitation workers encountered during my trip, I received staccato strokes of waste-lines that formed an ersatz map of the city’s refuse underbelly.

“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.