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Waste4Change CEO on dealing with Indonesia’s plastic problem

Published on January 24, 2023

Landfills anywhere can be hazardous to human health, but in developing nations like Indonesia, dumpsites can have fatal consequences. After heavy rainfall on February 21, 2005, the Leuwigajah landfill in Bandung underwent the second deadliest waste slide in world history, killing 143 people and destroying 71 houses.

Investigators cited a range of contributing factors behind the catastrophe, including poor site management, a front slope of practically 100%, and the vulnerability of the “marginalized scavengers” living at the base of the trash mountain. The people killed in the disaster earned a living hunting through the garbage for items like plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

Today, the private sector in Indonesia has joined the government in efforts to clean up the mess in the nation’s landfills. Waste4Change, a startup founded in 2014, is now a leading platform for government agencies, businesses, and consumers seeking to bring about change in the solid waste management space.

In a recent podcast with Lauren Blasco, Head of ESG at AC Ventures, Mohamed Bijaksana Junerosano (Sano for short), co-founder and CEO of Waste4Change, elaborated on the startup’s goal since its 2014 inception. The firm’s mission is to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in Indonesia’s landfills.

From the outset, Waste4Change has focused on establishing community-based programs for battling waste-related environmental problems. This is done with an emphasis on separating organic waste from non-biodegradable substances, such as plastic, directly at the source.

Waste4Change and the problem with plastic

Plastic also turned out to be a major catalyst behind the avalanche in Bandung. Investigators discovered that plastic bags constituted the main part of the material in the upper layers of the dump mass. The layers below were made of plastic bag remnants mixed with decomposed organic material, as well as stones and pieces of metal and wood. Most of the plastic on top was found burned due to a release of toxic gas, as were the bodies of the victims.

Statistically speaking, improper disposal of plastic waste is a big problem in Indonesia. The nation is the fourth most populous country on the globe, but it has been identified as the second-largest plastic polluter behind China. 

Indonesia produces 3.2 million tons of unmanaged plastic waste per year, including 10 billion plastic carry bags, equivalent to 85 tons, many of which eventually wind up in rivers or the sea.

Against this backdrop, the government passed an ambitious set of regulations in 2017 to reduce the nation’s reliance on landfills.  Since the passage of the new rules, Waste4Change has grown at a CAGR of 55.1%. The startup also recently raised a funding round of US$5 million co-led by AC Ventures. 

To keep the nation’s waste from accumulating in landfills, the government has set targets of 30% waste reduction and 70% waste handling by 2025. This means Waste4Change is likely to grow its business significantly over the next few years.

Catching up with developed nations

Waste4Change has embarked on new programs in recent years, ranging from a research project on behavioral change to initiatives that spread public awareness of environmental issues. It has also partnered with the World Bank and the Coca-Cola Foundation of Indonesia on various responsible waste disposal projects.

On a broader scale, though, Sano hopes to see Indonesia catch up to developed markets such as the US and Europe with regard to both waste collection and recycling rates.

Developed regions have already shown they can reach collection rates of 100%, meaning collection for each and every home and business. In contrast, collection rates for developing nations like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are still below 60%, he shared.

Sano estimates that recycling rates for developed nations are often greater than 50%, again considerably higher than in Indonesia.

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