From recycle to upcycle: 5 innovators who are changing the way we fight plastic pollution in Indonesia

Blog   April 21, 2020

David Christian, the CEO of Jakarta-based Evo & Co., shows off the company's line of biodegradable and compostable products.

INDONESIA has announced a plan to reduce plastic leakage into its oceans by 70% in the next five years – an ambitious undertaking that will require the collective effort of all those working to combat plastic pollution across the country. Here are the stories of five innovators who are making a difference on the ground.

Kopernik co-founders Toshi Nakamura (left) and Ewa Wojkowska (right) at their offices in Ubud, Bali.

"These water filters provide clean and safe drinking water to people that did not otherwise have access, and they also eliminate the need for disposable cups and water bottles," Wojkowska says.

Reduce

David Christian is holding a tray of what appear to be – at first glance – ordinary kitchen utensils: straws, forks, knives and plastic bags.

“This bag,” he says, unravelling a thin white bag with the slogan Rethink Plastic, “is made from cassava. We also have bamboo, paper – this edible straw is made of rice. And we have this, the seaweed packaging. This one is also edible, and it dissolves in water.”

Christian is the CEO of Evo & Co., a Jakarta-based company that tackles the issue of plastic pollution from the perspective of material design. Known for its product line of edible, compostable and biodegradable packaging materials, the company takes aim at plastic pollution from a different angle: if we can’t beat the convenience of single-use plastic materials – could we at least replace them with something more sustainable?

“People need to see that using single-use plastics might be very cheap,” says Christian, “but it actually has a long-term impact that can be much more expensive to resolve. We reduce plastic waste by providing alternatives – we make sure all of our single-use products can biodegrade in nature.”

Nearly 600km away, on the island of Bali, the social enterprise Kopernik has also made reducing single-use plastics a cornerstone of its work. “A few years ago, the issue of single-use plastics started being really obvious and apparent,” says co-founder Ewa Wojkowska. “It was everywhere that you looked, and everywhere that you went. It affects people's health, it affects the economy, tourism.”

Through a partnership with the city of Denpasar, Bali’s capital, Kopernik has developed an educational campaign on reducing plastic usage that will soon become part of the standard curriculum for Denpasar’s middle schools. The team has also partnered with the company Nazava to create a line of affordable water filters. “Over the past nine years, we’ve distributed tens of thousands of these water filters across Indonesia,” Wojkowska says. “They provide clean and safe drinking water to people that did not otherwise have access, and they also eliminate the need for disposable cups and water bottles.”

A reusable bottle of detergent at the Hepi Circle warehouse in Surabaya before it departs for delivery.

At Kudos Cafe in Surabaya, a local partner vendor, customers can refill household cleaning products at this station.

Reuse

Kumala Susanto, a professor and entrepreneur in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, says her idea for creating a zero waste business came from a competition. “I had found this competition for my students, but unfortunately none of them applied,” she remembers. “And I thought, ‘why don’t I apply myself, so that I can serve as an example to my students?’ And there was no way back.”

Susanto is the founder of Hepi Circle, one of Indonesia’s first home delivery services for providing cleaning products in reusable bottles. Deliveries are made via bike messenger, and the business also partners with local retailers and coffee shops to provide refill stations. 

At the Hepi Circle warehouse, as Susanto helps the bike messenger prepare for another delivery, she holds up a bottle of light blue liquid labelled Reusable and Recyclable. “When customers are done, they will give us the empty packaging, and we will clean it in our warehouse here.”

“We make the system more accessible, more affordable,” she adds. “I’ve read that a clean environment is closely related to our mental wellbeing. Our work is about creating a little happiness for people who want to do something for the environment.”

Syukriyatun Niamah giving a demo of Robries at the February monthly meeting of the Surabaya Waste Action Network, an incubator created by SecondMuse.

A Robries modular stool created from repurposed plastic waste.

Upcycle

At the monthly gathering of the Surabaya Waste Action Network, Syukriyatun Niamah gives fellow young innovators a demo of her business: Robries, a circular venture that turns plastic waste into colorful home décor.

“I actually created Robries when I was in college,” says Niamah, a product designer by training. “Surabaya is really hot, and I often bought drinking water that was packaged in plastic bottles. I collected them with my roommate. Within one week, the bottles were everywhere. So I wanted to make something new, to make a product from the plastic waste.”

Through experimentation, she found ways to generate new materials from plastic waste using heat and machinery. The catalogue has since grown to include tables, stools, clocks, vases and more, but for Niamah, who organizes local workshops on recycling and sustainability, the need to reduce plastic waste remains a key concern.

“The most difficult thing about recycling in Indonesia is that people don’t separate their waste,” she says. “If Indonesia wants to be free from plastic in 2025, we need to change people’s mindsets.”

“If Indonesia wants to be free from plastic in 2025, we need to change people's mindsets”

— Syukriyatun Niamah

A worker at the TPS 3R facility in Denpasar sorts waste into categories for recycling.

Recycle

At the TPS 3R facility in Denpasar, Bali, workers sort household waste into eight large woven baskets: plastic bottles, aluminium cans, papers – even waste from religious ceremonies. 

“Locally, our program is known as Desa Kedas, which means ‘clean village’ in Balinese,” says Abieta Billy, a Fellow with the non-profit McKinsey.org. “We really try to work from the source to the end – upstream to downstream. At the household level, we educate to change the behavior of our residents, of our community here to sort their waste.”

Local households sort their waste into three categories: dry recyclables, organic waste, and residue, like cigarette butts. “Then we bring it here – and this is where the additional processing happens. We maximize the value of what we get from the waste we collect here.”

In addition to selling dry recyclables to aggregators, TPS 3R also composts organic waste for hotels in the area. According to Billy, it only took two months after launching for the facility to become financially self-sustaining; it was able to raise wages for the waste sorters who worked there. “At the end of the day,” says Billy, “what we hope for is that whatever that we prevent from landfill, goes back into productive use.”