BY JANE TJAHJONO AND FREIDA SIREGAR
Every year, we throw away about one-third of the world’s food. This is the equivalent of USD 936 billion, more than the Netherlands’ entire GDP. Most of this food is dumped in landfills where it decomposes and produces greenhouse gases (GHG). In 2010, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that about 3 percent of the world’s GHG emissions were a result of transporting and treating solid waste; landfill gases were the largest source of these emissions.
Organic waste, which includes animal and plant-based material as well as degradable carbons like paper and lawn clippings, generates methane when it is buried in a landfill. Methane is 28 to 36 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Dumping organic waste is unnecessary; if waste could be diverted from landfills, we could avoid producing methane altogether, or trap it to generate energy.
Organic waste is a global problem, and it is also an overlooked and understudied one. Its poor treatment presents an opportunity and challenge for different countries. The US has a food waste rate of 30-40 percent, equal to approximately USD 161 billion worth of food, and in 2017, only 6.3 percent of it was composted.
For developing countries, the problem has additional layers of complexity: First, IPCC predicts that rates of landfill methane emissions in these countries will rise as incomes increase and the practice of landfilling continues. Second, solid waste management facilities in developing countries tend to be older and already stretched thin. Lastly, these countries tend to produce a larger proportion of organic waste than high-income countries. All of this worsens the consequences for managing organic waste poorly. It also makes it more difficult to manage organic waste well.
Jakarta’s waste crisis
Every day, Jakarta produces over 7,700 tons of trash and around 60 percent of this is organic waste. Its designated landfill, Bantar Gebang, is the largest in Southeast Asia, and it will reach maximum capacity in 2021, just one year from now. The situation will only become more urgent with time. By 2030, Jakarta’s population is expected to surpass 11 million, and with more people there will be more trash. The situation is so dire that it has been described as a time bomb or waste emergency.
It is dangerous to continue with the status quo, or to be satisfied with the current pace of action. Leaving organic waste on the back burner exacerbates climate change, and can risk other environmental harms, like leachate contaminating the groundwater. It can harm public health, be it directly through poor sanitary conditions, or indirectly through clogged waterways and flooding. One can anticipate economic harm since the stench and eyesore of trash can hurt the land value through reduced tourist and business activities. Improper treatment will lead to lost opportunities. We can leverage waste treatment to recover costs or even generate value. When managed well, organic waste can produce energy (via biodigesters) or animal feed (via black soldier fly facilities) that can be sold for a profit.
Looking for solutions abroad
Many developed countries turn their food scraps and compostable waste into energy. Sweden uses a biogas-digester facility to capture methane from its organic waste. It uses this methane to fuel its city buses, garbage trucks, taxis and even private cars. Singapore recycles 17% of its food waste and incinerates the rest through its Waste-to-Energy plant. Cambridge, Massachussetts, also processes its organic waste using anaerobic digestor facilities. The methane captured from this is transformed into electricity and the remaining organic waste is converted into fertilizer.
South Korea also offers an alternative model to manage its food waste. It enforces bans and fines for sending food to landfills. Seoul provides 6,000 bins equipped with scales and smart card readers. To dispose of food waste, households tap their smart cards to open the bins and are automatically charged based on the weight. Seoul processes the organic waste collected through these bins and transforms them into biogas, bio-oil, and fertilizers for use in urban farms. Through these initiatives, the city has reduced 47,000 tons of food waste over a period of six years.
But how do we transfer these solutions to developing country contexts like Jakarta?
Many high-income countries use biodigesters to transform organic waste into energy and compost. This is an exciting policy option since the government can recover costs over time. However, it needs to be adapted to accommodate critical constraints in Jakarta: a tight budget, limited space, and many competing priorities. If it relied on biodigesters alone, Jakarta, which produces approximately 4,600 tons of organic waste per day, would need to spend upwards of USD 266 million for initial installation and USD 715 for daily operations (see calculations in footnote). The initial capital cost is more than double the total annual budget allocated for waste management in Jakarta in 2019. Furthermore, traditional biodigester facilities that produce electricity require 1000m2 of land, which is scarce in a densely populated megacity. Jakarta should explore adopting biodigesters–particularly, in what scenarios that it makes most sense–but this is not a solution that can stand on its own.
Composting is another alternative for managing organic waste. But producing quality, usable compost involves a laborious and meticulous process. Among other requirements, only plant-based and chemical-free food waste can be composted, temperatures needs to be maintained at 30-60 degrees Celsius, the pH should be kept between 6.5-7.5, along with other requirements of oxygen and moisture content. Failure to adhere to any of these processes may make the compost harmful (in some cases kill the plants). This is perhaps why many cities have not taken the composting route.
Looking inwards instead
Emergent solutions that are local to Jakarta provide hope. Some companies are using black soldier flies (BSF) to process organic waste. The BSF lay eggs, which produce larvae that eat the waste and transform into maggots. These maggots are sold as protein supplements for feedstock; their excretion is sold as fertilizer. However, this solution is not yet scalable. Currently, companies using BSF are a tiny part of the market. On average, one company can only process 6 tons of organic waste per day–less than 0.15 percent of Jakarta’s daily organic waste–and not many of these companies exist in the greater Jakarta area.
Jakarta also has private and public waste banks, which are decentralized, community-based institutions where households can deposit their recyclable, non-organic trash in exchange for money. There are groups of waste banks, notably those in West Jakarta, that have been highly successful in sourcing recyclable waste from communities and even generating profit from it. It would be intriguing to see how the government can leverage this infrastructure to dispose of organic waste. There are already a significant number of waste banks, but many lack members or are unprofitable. Few, if any, reward members for depositing organic waste. These waste banks provide a model with potential—but they need to be adapted to work for organic waste management.
The bottom line: Work remains to be done
At the end of the day, we don’t yet have an effective or feasible solution for managing organic waste in developing countries. Tackling organic waste will not be an easy endeavor, but it is tremendously important. We have the opportunity to prevent a waste crisis with dire consequences for our economy, environment, and health, but to pave the way forward, the government must either support pioneers or become one. And we can’t do that without acknowledging the problem: We have a waste crisis on our hands. It’s a ticking time bomb. We need to act.
Freida Siregar is an MPP candidate at the Kennedy School. She is passionate about innovation and service delivery in the public sector, and the use of evidence to improve decision-making. Prior to HKS, Freida worked with economists and government agencies in Indonesia and Pakistan to improve social programs through randomized evaluations and evidence adoption.
Jane Tjahjono is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Prior to HKS, she was a Research Assistant at the World Bank in Indonesia analyzing the impacts of the Village Law and Fund Transfer program, a flagship policy to decentralize development at the village level. Jane holds a BA in Economics from Covenant College.
Edited by: Kanika Verma
 Greenhouse gases
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 IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report
 National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials#R&Ctrends
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 Total organic waste in Jakarta = 7700 tons x 60%.
 Estimates from Rekosistem, a biodigester start-up in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Installation price of a 100-capactiy ton biodigestor = USD 5.78 million (1 USD = Rp. 15,000). We need 46 (4600 tons/100 ton capacity) biodigestors to completely absorb the daily production of organic waste. Total Cost = USD 5.78 million * 46 = USD 265,880,000 ~ USD 266 million. Operations cost/month is USD 21,440. Daily operations cost = 21,440/30 days = USD 715
 Estimates from Rekosistem, a biodigester start-up in Jakarta, Indonesia