Sedekah sampah: How Indonesia raises money for social programs while tackling its waste problem

Photo: Tom Fisk / Pexels

Dealing with waste remains one of the toughest challenges for developing countries like Indonesia. Promoting waste management as a way to raise funds for social programs could help address the problem.

By Muchtazar S. T.

February 21, 2005 was a catastrophic moment for Indonesia: 143 people were killed by a landslide from an overflowing landfill site in Leuwigajah, Bandung. The day was an eye-opener for people and the government later declared the date National Waste Awareness Day. Since then, many initiatives have been launched to address waste management.

One of these is a program called sedekah sampah, meaning waste to charity, in which citizens send recyclable waste to collection centres, which then sell it to junk shops, industrial recyclers or other waster collectors to raise money for social programs and aid. The programme recovers up to 8 tonnes of waste per month in each city where it operates.

The programme focuses on charity in part in order to engage upper-middle class society in waste management, as this demographic isn’t typically motivated by economic incentives around waste collection. The programme is unique because it can integrate social and environmental benefits with waste management.

The city of Bandung became one of the first places to introduce the programme in 2017, when PD Kebersihan Bandung (Bandung Cleanliness Company) and DPU Daarut Tauhid, an Islamic philanthropy body, launched a collaboration. Since then, the programme has been replicated in many cities, including Tangerang, Bekasi, Padang and Banjarmasin.

The idea of sedekah sampah is based in generosity and the Indonesian tradition of gotong royong (mutual cooperation). It’s also in line with a key fatwa, or Islamic legal ruling, for Indonesians. According to the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Ulema Council), “The Muslim community is mandated to keep environment cleanliness and recycle waste into useful items.”

As former Head of PD Kebersihan Bandung Deni Nurdiana said, “The objective of sedekah sampah is to improve the waste segregation rate at the source by increasing social cohesiveness and educating people about donating recyclable waste in addition to cash.”

The success of sedekah sampah shows how Indonesia—and the region—can scale-up region waste solutions

While sedekah sampah has already been successful, the model can still be improved with additional support. Offering pick-up services to people who want to donate waste enables more households to participate and potentially doubles the volume of collected waste, as seen in Bekasi city. The value of the waste collected can also be increased by waste treatment and processing, allowing the programme to generate more revenue. In Aceh, a plastic shredding initiative quadrupled the price of plastic waste from S$0.1 to S$0.4 per kilogram.

Local and national leaders also need to raise awareness about the programme and leverage this awareness to increase impact. The regional people’s representative council of Banjarmasin city, the capital of South Kalimantan,  invited people from the surrounding area to donate recyclable waste together with local council members at a waste collection point. During the coronavirus pandemic, local authorities elsewhere, such as in Ciamis city and Paser Penajam Utara city, have even promoted sedekah sampah as a way to raise funds for people impacted by the crisis. Many people can’t donate money to those in need during COVID-19, but they can donate waste, which can be sold to raise money.

Given the success of sedekah sampah, other countries in Southeast Asia could develop similar solutions to address the region’s plastic waste crisis. Most plastic waste is technically recyclable, but the collection and sorting costs prohibit effective programs.

The scope of sedekah sampah could also be expanded to cover food and organic waste, which constitute to 52% of waste generated in Southeast Asia. Food waste can be collected and treated to be used as animal feed and other organic waste can be composted to make organic fertilizer. The repurposed waste can be sold to local farmers in the region at low cost or simply donated. When done right, sedekah sampah can promote wider participation in waste management and help to both prevent pollution and raise money for social programs.