Asia

Trash to treasure: Indonesia’s social enterprise empowers the poor through upcycling waste

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channelnewsasia– The shelves of the three-storey workshop in a Jakarta suburb were packed with colourful tote bags and laptop bags.

Upon closer inspection, one would notice that they were actually made from discarded detergent packaging and used billboard materials.

Near the shop’s entrance were burlap sacks from a coffee bean importer, waiting to be cut to size and sewn into shopping bags. Inside the workshop, workers stuffed transparent plastic cushions with shredded multi-layered plastics which are notoriously hard to recycle.

For the last 16 years, XSProject has been upcycling waste into chic and colourful fashion items that have attracted international clientele and members of Jakarta’s expatriate community. It produces more than 3,000 items a month, finding new life for waste that would otherwise head to the landfills.

XSProject general manager Retno Hapsari said the company began as a community empowerment programme for a foundation of the same name. It was founded by an American expatriate named Ann Wizer in 2004.

“We were looking for ways to reduce trash and help impoverished trash pickers,” the 58-year-old told CNA.

“There was waste like multi-layered packaging which they couldn’t sell to recycling plants. We told them to bring this packaging to us. We cleaned them and made products with these materials. This way, we hope to reduce these types of waste and provide the trash pickers with additional income.”

XSProject’s first line of products featured colourful tote bags made from discarded soap and detergent packaging.

“We keep thinking about what other types of waste are out there. We are not limiting ourselves to a specific type of trash,” she said.

Today, XSProject has numerous lines of products made from a wide range of materials which would otherwise end up in the trash cans and polluting the environment.

They even do custom orders like guitar cases and golf bags.

EMPOWERING THE IMPOVERISHED

Hapsari said that she is merely a marketer and a spokesperson at XSProject and insisted that the creative brains behind the products are the seven workers employed by the company.

“Some of our workers were trash pickers or have trash picker fathers and mothers,” she said. “Some of them couldn’t read when they joined. We paid for their education. We gave them new skills by enrolling them into sewing courses.

“Now, they can simply look at a material and know what the end product will look like. They are the ones mixing the colours, mixing the materials and coming up with the designs.”

And the designs proved to be a hit with XSProject’s customers.

“We get suggestions and ideas from customers on what we should be producing next. It’s important to listen to them,” she said.

XSProject now produces everything from face masks, coasters, aprons to baskets, purses and bags. It also attracted the attention of resellers and bulk buyers in countries like Singapore and Australia.

The company is now working with freelance tailors to meet with the growing demands and improve the tailors’ livelihoods.

XSProject now earns between US$35,000 and US$70,000 a month, profits of which go back to the foundation which provides donations and pays for the education of trash pickers and their families.

After 15 years of being a mere programme of a foundation, XSProject became a business enterprise in 2019.

CREATING AWARENESS

Around 85,000 tonnes of plastic in Indonesia are dumped into the environment each year, according to government figures, making the country the second worst plastic polluters in the world after China.

The logos of the brands responsible for these waste are featured prominently in some of XSProject’s products to put pressure on the companies to start thinking about alternative ways to package and sell their products.

“I will be happy if one day there will be no more waste to upcycle into a product. It means our work here is done,” she said.

Hapsari said she also wants to inspire others to start upcycling the waste they see around them.

“We are not the first to upcycle waste. But many of these ventures fail because they don’t have a viable business plan. They don’t know how to market their products,” she said.

XSProject was successful because it has access to the expatriate community in Jakarta, thanks to its founder. “Ninety-five per cent of people who buy our products are expats, because they are the ones who care most about our mission,” Hapsari said.

But Hapsari hoped that this would eventually change. XSProject is working with schools to teach students about the importance of reducing and recycling waste so the future generations would come to appreciate what the company is doing.

“The students also help sell the products and proceeds of which go to the foundation,” she said. “One school even provided their students with laptop bags bought from us. Therefore, the students become aware that we can breathe new life into the things we throw away and take for granted.”

“I realised that what we are doing is a drop in the ocean. But we have to do something about our waste problem. We have to start somewhere. If we all do our bit, we can do a lot,” she said.