When Carolina Handjaja returned from the United States to her homeland Indonesia in May 2020, things were not the same as they used to be. Movements were limited due to large-scale social restrictions imposed on Jakarta and other cities. As she had to spend more time at home, she started buying more groceries and other items from online marketplaces such as Tokopedia, Shopee, or Bukalapak.
On average, she ordered around eight packages per month. Handjaja noticed how most items were wrapped in different layers of plastic, then packed in a cardboard box or in another plastic bag. Handjaja found it hard to dispose of that waste properly.
“I have been actively recycling since 2016 when I was living in the US. Over there, household waste is separated between organic and inorganic. Since returning to Indonesia, the [waste management] system is very different,” she said. In Indonesia, citizens are not required to sort their trash into organic or inorganic waste. Furthermore, all trash—recyclable or non-recyclable—is collected on the same day and piled together, making trash sorting pointless.
With the growth of e-commerce amid social restrictions, the amount of waste, mainly plastic, bubble wrap, cardboard, and sticker labels, is quickly creating another environmental problem in the country, the Indonesian E-commerce Association warned last year. For instance, online sales of food and beverages recorded a three-fold growth during the pandemic on Tokopedia, while Bukalapak sales also increased by 3x in 2020 compared to 2019.
What’s more, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences conducted an online survey in April 2020 and found that 96% of packages were excessively wrapped. Merchants tend to use at least three layers of plastic, including plastic covers, bubble wrap, and poly mailer bags for parcels, plus cardboard.
“Once you start sorting out the trash, you realize that plastic actually makes up most of the household waste,” Handjaja said.
Mounting e-commerce packaging waste problem
In 2020, the Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry found that Indonesians produced over 67 million tons of waste per year. Plastic waste accounted for about 6.8 million tons, a figure that’s growing by 5% annually. The report highlights e-commerce sales as one of the largest contributors to plastic waste production in Indonesia.
Aware of the problem, the Indonesian government joined forces with the Global Plastic Action Partnership to launch the Indonesia National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP) in March 2019. In April 2019, the NPAP introduced an action plan involving different stakeholders to reduce ocean plastic waste by 70% by 2025 and become plastic-pollution-free by 2040. The plan comprises five interventions: reducing or replacing the use of plastic; redesigning plastic products and packaging based on the principle of reuse or recycle; doubling the collection of plastic waste by over 80% by 2025 and doubling the waste recycling capacity by 2025, and finally, building waste disposal facilities for unrecyclable waste.
Following the action plan, many cities and regions, such as Jakarta and Bali, have banned single-use plastic bags from retail stores and restaurants. Tech companies like Gojek and Grab also followed suit by charging additional fees for customers requesting disposable cutlery. The two companies also armed their delivery drivers with messenger bags to avoid the use of plastic bags from restaurants.
However, implementing stricter measures isn’t that easy for e-commerce platforms, as they usually mainly act as a marketplace facilitating transactions, payments, and logistics. Representatives of Tokopedia and Bukalapak, two of Indonesia’s most used e-commerce platforms, told local media Katadata last year that the packaging of parcels is entirely up to the merchants. Tech firms should encourage merchants to “sell products in an environmentally friendly way,” and motivate customers to “reuse plastic and cardboard packaging,” they said.
Taking matters into one’s own hands
Not knowing how to recycle all the plastic and cardboard from her parcels properly, Handjaja started to look for private waste management companies. Through friend’s recommendations and social media, she found a few startups operating in the recycling household waste sector, finally choosing Rebricks and Rekosistem as her go-to recyclers.
Jakarta-based Rebricks, a startup launched in November 2019, has quickly gained popularity due to its unique products. The recycling company processes plastic waste into eco-pavers that can be used for construction projects.
Rekosistem, also headquartered in Jakarta, focuses instead on turning waste into energy sources like biogas and fertilizer since 2018. The firm deploys public “smart boxes” that use the internet of things, named Rebox, in the city’s MRT stations where users can drop off plastic packaging waste. Users can input and track their waste donations through the Rekosistem app.
Since early 2021, Handjaja has been routinely sending over 80% of her personal household waste to these two companies, she told KrASIA. “The process is very simple. I just drop the waste at the drop points, nothing else,” she said. Rebricks has four stations across Jakarta, while Rekosistem also has four main locations, in addition to the Rebox boxes.
However, the two companies only accept certain types of household waste. Rebricks, for example, only takes low-density polyethylene (LDEP), which is often used for food or snack wrappers, as well as bubble wrap and plastic labels. Rekosistem accepts more types of trash, from paper and cardboard to electronic waste.
Triska Sarwono, a social media officer for a startup in Jakarta, has also been routinely recycling her household waste. She decided to use the services of Armada Kemasan, a waste management company operating since 2010. The firm turns plastic food wrappers into daily products like notebooks or grocery bags. The company established five drop points across Jakarta and offers a home pickup service for a voluntary fee.
Since this year, Sarwono has been regularly sending two trash bags filled with plastic packaging, food wrappers, glass, and plastic bottles each month to Armada Kemasan. She can recycle around 60% of her household waste by doing this, Sarwono told KrASIA.
“I want to help to reduce the amount of trash in landfills, as I heard they will reach maximum capacity this year,” Sarwono said, referring to the Bantar Gebang landfill, one of the world’s largest landfills located in Jakarta.
Bantar Gebang measures over 200 football fields in size and has been collecting as much as 6,350 tons of waste a day, according to the New York Times. The 110 hectares site will likely reach its maximum capacity in 2021, the deputy governor of Jakarta, Ahmad Riza Patria, said last year, as reported by CNBC Indonesia.
“Sorting trash is time consuming but I personally can’t fathom the idea that one day the earth will become very damaged and unlivable for future generations,” Handjaja said. With that in mind, the time, money, and sacrifices seem small in comparison, Sarwono added.
Transforming plastic into construction material
Ovy Sabrina, co-founder of Rebricks, started recycling waste with her university friend Novita Tan in 2018, as the two were concerned about the growing amount of plastic waste.
“I noticed that plastic packaging is a huge part of everyone’s daily life. Instant noodles, instant drink sachets, plastic bags from grocery stores, they are used every day by everyone,” she told KrASIA. “But what happens to that waste?”
Inspired by her father, who runs a construction materials store, Sabrina figured out a way to process the plastic waste and turn it into building materials in July 2018. She consulted with experts such as civil engineers to find the right formula. Together with Tan, Sabrina launched the business in 2019, initially buying plastic waste from small food stalls in Jakarta.
As Rebricks upped its social media promotion, mainly through Instagram, they started getting more exposure, and the company now receives almost 50 kg of plastic waste every day. The waste donations mostly come from individuals wanting to recycle their household waste.
Sabrina and Tan focus on plastic waste rejected by waste banks and scavengers, as these types of plastic can’t be recycled or sold. Rebricks only accepts bubble wrap, sachets, poly mailers, and labels from bottled drinks. The duo aims to reduce the amount of waste that otherwise would end up in a landfill. “Sometimes we receive plastic waste that we can’t use, like plastic bottles. We donate that unusable trash to waste banks or scavengers,” Sabrina said.
Rebricks processes around 20 kg of waste per day, resulting in 100 sq m of bricks. The bricks are made by mixing the plastic waste with other materials. Plastic waste forms up to 20% of the brick’s composition, Sabrina explained. However, the production process makes Rebricks’ products more expensive than normal bricks available on the market, so the company has struggled to market its products, Sabrina said, not revealing retail price of the firm’s eco-pavers.
“Going forward, we are trying to increase our sales,” Sabrina said. “If we increase sales, then the number of processed waste will go up as well.”
Sarwono and Handjaja are only a few of many Indonesians attempting to be more responsible with their household waste. Waste management services like Rebricks, Rekosistem, and Armada Kemasan are certainly helping, yet their impact is still limited. With online shopping becoming more common each day, Indonesia is at large risk of being flooded by plastic waste from e-commerce packaging if all stakeholders, including the government, marketplaces, online merchants, and customers fail to adhere to better measures to tackle marine trash and landfill waste. And there needs to be more incentives for the recycling industry to thrive.
NPAP estimates that around USD 18 billion in capital is needed between 2017 and 2040 to reach the goal of achieving a circular economy for plastic by 2040.