Trash, Transformed.

Retno Hapsari wants to help trash collector families improve their livelihoods. She has devised an ingenious support system that relies on upcycling and education.

Text by Nadine Freischlad
Photo by Dissy Ekapramudita

INDONESIA – Retno Hapsari is a middle-aged woman in her early fifties. “I’m from a very normal family” she says. “My father is a government official, my mother a teacher.” We were driving back from one of her routine visits to the squatter community on an illegal garbage dumpsite in Cirendeu, just South of Jakarta. Sitting amidst a heap of bags and bottles in Retno’s compact car, I was trying to figure out what makes this woman tick. But she isn’t one to make bold statements. “I just think it needs to be done. There shouldn’t be garbage dumps like this in Indonesia. Or anywhere.”

Retno runs XSProject, an NGO that buys reusable waste materials from garbage collectors, and upcycles them into products such as laptop or book covers, cosmetic bags and storage boxes.

Until seven years ago, Retno was working in a multinational company and sitting on the advisory board of XSProject. In 2007, Retno took over the management of XSProject when American artist Ann Wizer, who had started the initiative as communal art project, left Indonesia. Retno believed in the initiative because XSProject is not just about a creative approach to waste management, it is also about finding ways to improve the livelihood of a community of disadvantaged families.

At XSProject, a 5% share of product sales is channelled towards a scholarship fund, which helps children from trash picker families at the Cirendeu dump go to school. XSProject also picks up the occasional medical bill, pays for missing light bulbs, and provides employment for some of the family members of the community at the XSProject upcycling workshop. So far, 56 children have been enrolled in a local school nearby with funds from XSProject.

Over the years, Retno has come to understand the mechanisms of the trash economy. Dumpsites emerge on empty plots of land with unclear legal status. Each dumpsite ends up being managed by one or several Lapak: These are families with enough means to build several shanty houses and carts. Each lapak allows poorer families to live in the shacks and assigns them a cart each morning which they use to comb the district for any form of trash. Everything reusable or recyclable is returned to the lapak, the rest is piled on top of a big heap of slowly rotting waste.

Living conditions in these informal settlements are harsh and unhygienic. Trash pickers usually come from outside the city, where they have fled from extreme poverty. They often do not possess official documents such as ID cards, marriage or birth certificates, which makes them especially vulnerable. Without legal documents, these people do not exist, let alone have access to economic opportunities. Ironically, the informal trash economy that has emerged as a result of a dysfunctional municipal waste management system has become a source of livelihood for them – a few women from the trash picker community are employed as cleaners and seamstresses at XSProject.

“I have had people say that it is not good to give support to these people living here illegally, that it will make them lazy. But I don’t see that. They live on the garbage dump because they are forced to; this is their life, day in day out. What we can do is minimal. We offer opportunities, but it is up to them to make something out of it.”

Retno has found that the key to making long lasting improvements to the living conditions of these communities is to gain the trust of the lapak. Last year, Retno managed to convince the lapak to support her plan to start a makeshift pre-school at the Cirendeu dump. Here, children aged 4 to 6 receive basic education and supervision three times a week. This was a response to Retno’s observation that children from trash picking families who were supported by XSProject to attend mainstream schools were often not able to follow the pace of learning there.

The pre-school education provided at XSProject is intended to give the children an early head start and create a positive learning experience that will motivate them to keep on learning.

To continue the growth of XSProject, Retno reaches out to corporations with a win-win proposition. Rather than donating money, corporations donate industrial waste on a large scale, and buy back the upcycled product as a unique form of merchandise, supplementing income from product sales in its retail outfit.

Through XSProject, the messy Cirendeu dump now symbolises a renewal hub of sorts where waste materials are given a second lease of life and the disadvantaged are given a little leg up to start well in society.

At XSProject, people, organisations and corporations are linked in a sustainable chain of creative entrepreneurship. Within this chain, individuals fulfil their professional ambitions while leaving a long lasting impact on their environment.

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