Developing effective waste management systems in Indonesia

Indonesian Waste Recycling Trader Motorbike

CLEAR’s involvement in an exciting new international research partnership project has helped translate academic findings into practical waste management solutions.

Combining international expertise with local knowledge

The research partnership includes the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), a major Indonesian technical university, and London South Bank University (LSBU). CLEAR set out the scope for the research collaboration, brought together the different parties involved, and facilitated direct community involvement ensuring that the solutions developed were suited to all stakeholders, from local community waste handlers to Government officers levels.

Different stakeholders work together on finding solutions at one of the consultation workshops held at CLEAR’s Bale Tau learning space in Batukaras.

The program enabled the interchange of knowledge between experts in each country. It also enabled the interchange between the experts and the Batukaras community through various workshops held in CLEAR’s Bale Tau facility. Indonesian architecture students were, for example, introduced to the problem of waste management and challenged to consider how new infrastructural development can maximize value and sustainability whilst minimising environmental damage.

The research covered different scales ranging from villages to regional.  We analysed different available technologies and management mechanisms for collection and treatment of waste. The current focus for immediate implementation is on self-funding community-driven schemes as government funding and support for local waste management is still low. However increasing awareness of the damaging effect of marine plastic pollution on the tourist industry is focusing government attention on the need to act very soon. 

Village representatives attend a presentation and consultation workshop with University and Industry Team members alongside CLEAR Community Representatives as part of the IAPP program

The research was made possible by two research grants under the International Academic Partnership Program (IAPP) from the Royal Academy of Engineers. The academy is responsible for managing an element of the United Kingdom government’s international funding aimed at reducing the huge global problem of marine plastic pollution.

Converting trash to cash

One of the significant research findings was the use of new technologies to convert mixed marine and beach plastic into a usable fuel and activated carbon for increased agricultural production.

This informal waste dump close to the riverside in Batukaras Village is a typical example of how rural waste is disposed of in Indonesia. CLEAR is helping empower villages to set up comprehensive waste management infrastructure.

New technologies 

There is a wide range of technologies dealing with plastic and other waste. Each has its own implications on how the waste must be collected and eventually sold /disposed of sustainably. Pyrolysis is an emerging technology that could become a front runner for dealing with waste plastic. It involves heating hydrocarbon (plastic) or carbohydrate (wood or paper) waste whilst rigorously excluding oxygen to produce new, more valuable, less damaging molecular forms.


Pyrolysis can be utilised in three forms, known as low medium and high temperature pyrolysis. 

This oil is the product of plastic pyrolysis from a prototype pyrolysis machine developed in our IAPP research program


  • Low-temperature pyrolysis occurs up to 350 degrees centigrade and is commonly known as gasification. It produces activated carbon and a usable fuel gas. Our research showed this is probably not the way forward as the process is relatively inefficient and difficult to control accurately.
  • Medium-temperature pyrolysis occurs between 350 and approximately 600 degrees centigrade. It produces a much smaller element of activated carbon alongside a usable liquid fuel which is a direct replacement for diesel. The technology audit which was part of the research indicated multiple sources stating that this process was 80% efficient and capable of treating mixed plastic such as that which occurs in the sea and on beaches. The technology is available from small village scale up to much larger plant and it is a very exciting possibility.
  • High-temperature pyrolysis is also known as plasma torch pyrolysis and occurs at approximately 1,000 degrees centigrade. This is a very expensive technology. It is not presently suitable for local waste management in Indonesia but much more suited for treating waste in the cities of the developed world. Plasma torch pyrolysis is capable of producing pure activated carbon and free hydrogen for use in any future hydrogen economy.

What is activated carbon?

Activated carbon is a by-product of treating plastic waste with pyrolysis. It is a form of carbon which can safely be dug into the soil. It cannot be broken down and can remain there for hundreds of years. The surface of particles of activated carbon are covered in tiny ‘pits’ which can trap nutrient molecules leaving them available for agriculture whilst stopping them being washed away by rains and polluting rivers. The extra nutrients made available for agriculture has been shown to increase yield by 15%.

Activated carbon made using a form of charcoal burning of wood formed the basis of the Inca economy in South America to the point that approximately 10% of the vast area of the Amazon Basin in South America has been treated in this way, known as ‘black earth’ or ‘Terra Praeta’.

Locking up carbon in soil for hundreds of years so that it is no longer involved in creating global heating is known as sequestration. The Kyoto protocol sets up an international carbon trading method which will provide an income for sequestering carbon in this way. 

One of our IAPP research team is feeding plastic bags into the prototype pyrolysis machine our program developed. More refinement of both the machine and the product is required before the system becomes commercially viable. A few examples of medium scale pyrolysis plants are already in successful operation.

Ways Forward for a Cleaner Future

The research program was aimed at developing the most appropriate mechanism to introduce waste management to Indonesia, rather than dealing specifically with the reduction of marine plastic pollution, because the concept of formal regulated waste management is in its infancy in Indonesia, despite the huge volume of waste generated with the world’s 4th largest population and the fact that Indonesia are also handling imported waste from the UK and other countries. Until waste management infrastructure is considered comprehensively it will be impossible to specifically control the flow of waste plastic into the marine environment, rivers and beaches.

The combined expertise of the different team members in our international collaboration has helped to confirm the importance of ‘people power’ in solving waste management problems. We identified the biggest single factor in successful management is the quality of the separation of materials, which is best managed at source, in the home or business, with community groups such as the local PKK women’s groups being key actors in Indonesian communities. The research also highlighted the need to re-frame peoples perspective on waste, so they can view it as a usable material in a circular flow, rather than it being the end product of a process. In designing ‘Material Hubs’ for waste management our University teams were assisting with this transition in mindset, a key requirement for the next generation of waste infrastructure facilities.

Local waste traders in Indonesia provide an excellent recycling service whereby materials with value are bought from individuals and then traded with larger material trading setups. Unfortunately the materials with no re-sale value don’t get picked up by anyone and a large proportion end up in rivers and the ocean, or get burned on the streets exposing children and adults to dangerous toxic fumes.

Combining emerging pyrolysis technology with use of the activated carbon by-product really does appear to offer possibilities for an integrated sustainable way forward in the future of waste management in Indonesia. The technology needs further development to realise it’s full potential, but it could play an important part in years to come if applied in combination with improved material management, collection and handling systems.

Technical Advisor: Brian Mark, Editorial Team: Robert Mackenzie


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