Waste Pickers Have Feelings Too
#IfIComeToYourHouse was a trending topic on Twitter the other day. I joined in the conversation and tweeted, “#IfIComeToYourHouse I would say, ‘Sorry, a scavenger is not allowed in.’”
That was a practical joke and I would never actually say that to anybody. Ten minutes later, I was suddenly reminded of a picture I saw on Facebook once. It was a photo of a grubby little scavenger boy. By tweeting what I did, I felt as if I had just insulted the little boy and trash pickers in general. If they could read my tweet, I assume they’d be hurt by what I wrote. I grabbed my phone and deleted the tweet.
Garbage scavengers, commonly known as “pemulung” in Indonesia, do not get the respect they deserve. They come from poverty and collect trash as a means of sustaining their livelihoods. Scouring garbage dumps across the capital, they work in filthy conditions. No wonder people often look down on them. At many establishments, there are “Pemulung Dilarang Masuk” (No Scavengers) signs posted.
At the same time, every household, business or shopping mall produces waste and needs to get rid of it daily. The problem is the people in these buildings often aren’t used to separating recyclable materials from non-recyclable trash. It is then the scavengers’ job to collect these recyclable plastics, paper, glass, metals — anything that can be resold. To them, waste means money.
Ironically, they post the “Pemulung Dilarang Masuk” signs when they actually need these people’s services to properly dispose of their waste. Personally, I think the signs are cruel and impolite. They are as bad as the “Whites Only” signs — mainly used for restrooms and drinking fountains — in the United States decades ago. Such signs are a humiliating reminder of an ugly past that still resonates today. They represent a wall that separates and demeans, whether it was people of color back then, or lower social status today.
Although the profession is far from respected, waste pickers are people just like us, who happen to pick trash for a living. When I look at them I realize how lucky I am and I’m grateful.
I hope in the not-so-distant future that Indonesia can implement an effective solid waste management program to stop people from scavenging and ideally, puts them to work in the formal sector.
Until then, let us learn to humanize scavengers and respect the function they serve, because who knows; your branded purses could be made from trash picked up by them.