Once renowned for its pristine beaches, Untung Jawa Island, just an hour’s boat ride from Jakarta, is now known as “trash island.” With hundreds of tons of styrofoam, plastic and the occasional dead body washing ashore, the locals have had enough.
Untung Jawa is part of the Thousand Islands, a string of 105 tropical islands in Jakarta Bay. Once a popular tourist destination, thirteen heavily polluted rivers that flow from Jakarta harbor out to the islands mean they are now being hit by daily waves of trash.
Between the island’s two harbors hangs a 100-meter-long net designed to trap the mountain of styrofoam and plastic that pours in every day. Untung Jawa village chief Eko Suroyo says the net is only moderately effective.
“Because there is so much trash we use this net to prevent trash from coming ashore. It doesn’t always work, but at least we can minimize the amount of trash,” the village chief said.
An average of 100 tons washes up on the island, he said, made worse every day by strong easterly winds that carry more rubbish from the bustling metropolis of nearly 10 million people, whose sewage system is almost non-existent.
Eko says the situation has reached a crisis point.
“No wonder the mayor of Thousand Islands calls this an island of trash! Any kind of trash is available here,” he said. “From mineral water bottles, instant noodle packages, sandals, and even a dead body. Yes, a dead body! Once we had two dead bodies floating ashore in the same week!”
The smell of rotting, salty trash fills the air in Untung Jawa even with the 11 official beach cleaners working hard all day.
“Sometimes we have to swim out into the water to collect trash. Sometimes there are jelly fish that sting us and sometimes I step on nails or glass. That’s the risk involved of being a cleaning officer,” said a beach cleaner named Ali.
Rusli, another beach cleaner on the island, which has a population of about 2,000, says tourists often ask him where the rubbish comes from.
“The trash is constant. We’ve tried our best to clean the beach, and then another wave comes and brings more and more trash,” he said. “I really worry about what the tourists think of our island.”
Fellow rubbish collector Ali says it’s bad for business.
“Tourists complain whenever they want to swim or play water sports. They ask why there’s so much trash on the island. I tell them it’s not our trash, this is from Jakarta,” he says.
For others, the waves of rubbish are an opportunity.
Fifty-three-year-old Samin used to be a fisherman but now survives by collecting and selling bottles to local recyclers.
Samin makes just $1 per kilogram but his neighbor Numpati makes $150 a month by turning the trash into recycled handbags and laptop bags.
“I just looked around to find new models and styles for my bags,” Numptai said. “Recently I have been inspired by the bags I see actresses carrying.”
Numpati said she learned how to make the bags in a government training session and now sells them to tourists, in exhibitions and even in the Netherlands.
There are, however, mounds of rubbish on Untung Jawa that can’t be recycled and most of it ends up in a government-run incinerator.
“We get up to 10 or 20 tons of trash a day, but I can only burn around one ton a day,” said the incinerator operator, Suherman. “If I push the machine too hard, it breaks. So after working for one hour I give it a rest for about half an hour and then start it up again”
With the constant waves of trash, village chief Eko says the governments of Jakarta and West Java should do more to stop the rubbish at the source.
“I don’t ask too much, just prevent the trash coming to our island. If it stops, we can grow our tourism industry. These provinces have to take this seriously. We have to change our mind-set; the ocean is not a huge trash can. Oceans and rivers are our future.”