Have you ever wondered what happened to your waste after the blue bin? 

Traditional waste management practices have been driven by the necessity to keep waste out of sight and, consequently, “out of mind”. This has resulted in the development of systems that enclose waste and obscure its hazards. Our current economic paradigm hides the side-effects of our consumer-driven culture.

Those who benefit from these systems are far removed from the communities th­­­at must collect, manage, and bury or repurpose the by-products of our consumption.  This speaks to the need to redesign our residual management practices in a way that enables a localized circular economy to flourish.

Systems for recovering value from waste (recycling, incineration, etc.) streams have been in place for a long time, yet they are not able to cope with our rapidly growing production capacity.

Our inability to manage the byproducts of our production and consumption have placed excessive pressure on ecological systems – evidenced clearly by biodiversity loss – on climate change, and have led to a proliferation of ocean plastics.

This problem is deeply personal to me. I grew up in Indonesia and spent all my adulthood in Canada. When China banned the import of mixed recyclables in 2017, I witnessed a rapid increase in the ever-accumulating plastic waste in the land and waters of Indonesia. My country has always struggled with managing its own waste, and now we face the added challenge of dealing with imports from the developed country.

Following the supply chain.

In the summer of 2019, I decided to track the journey of plastic – from consumption, through the recycling process, and back to production again. This particular trip to Indonesia was eye opening to me, even as someone who has been involved in recycling over the past few years.

As I followed each link of the Indonesian recycling supply chain,  I experienced a different slice of reality that debunked all my pre-existing assumptions on plastic waste. Waste treatment is as much a societal issue as it is an environmental issue; it is an economical driver that will be defended by those who benefit from it.

Plastic Mountain in Serang, Indonesia
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We stumbled upon this plastic mountain on our way back to Jakarta, from the only road in town. When we first spotted it, we weren’t quite sure what it was. It was a white and bright, similar to marble quarries in Europe. It looks very distinct from the rest of the green rice paddy landscape. We had to go through one of the houses along the row on one side of the street because there are no direct ways to get in.

Plastic Mountain and Indah Kiat Paper and Pulp Factory in the Background
Plastic mountain panorama
Waste pickers waiting for the next truck to dump waste from paper factory and excavator compacting soft plastic in the background

The plastic mountain is odorless, as all plastic is washed in the paper factory before it arrives. The ground feels soft; the closest sensation I can think of is when I walk on a thick layer of healthy moss on the forest floor in the Pacific Northwest.

Illustration of fluffy moss and fluffy plastic

We arrived in the middle of a ‘rush hour’. A couple of trucks drove up the hill and dumped their contents. Everyone rushed towards the pile and picked through their share of the waste. The work of these tiny hands are so efficient that no valuable recyclables are left behind except for the soft plastic film, leaving it to form another geological layer of this growing plastic mountain. This plastic film is extremely hard to recycle because it tangles the shredding machines.

As soon as the plastic is collected, the pickers go back to their their wall-less homes, made with local materials: plastic tarps held up by a few sticks with cardboard as a floor; just enough to shelter them from the rain and the hot sun. The minimal enclosures allow them to chat with their neighbors from within their homes, killing time until the next truck comes.

Make-shift shed

The community is very tight knit, and everybody knows one another and treats each other like family.  They are generous despite having very little, and welcomed us warmly into their community. We were invited to have some tea with one family, and they happily pulled out a box with only a few teabags left.  A lady joined and shared pieces of mangoes that she had picked from her tree.

Sharing Mangoes

 At the end of the day, these waste pickers sell their findings to the sorting depot. There are a few of these around and they are competitive with each other in terms of price. Each bags were inspected and weighed carefully before purchasing. A good day’s of collecting will net waste pickers around RP 20,000 – less than $2CAD; on a bad day, some of them will only make 50cents.

Waiting for the next truck. The goal of the day is to fill up at least one bag.
Weighing collected plastic in the sorting depot.

In addition to buying plastic collected by waste pickers, the sorting depot also receives recyclables directly from waste importer and waste streams from various  local businesses.  When China refused to take shipped waste from developed countries, Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia stepped up to fill in the role. One of the waste entrepreneurs we met in Serang expressed his worry to us that Indonesia may one day follow China’s restrictions on imported waste. His micro-factory, along with many alike, is in the business of sorting plastic benefiting from these imports. 

Diverted recyclables from china
Imported bag content before sorting
Sorted blue toned PVC type plastic
Piles of plastic collected by waste pickers
Removing tin seals and sorting by colour

In the sorting depot,.the material itself doesn’t go through any transformation, but this is the segment of the supply chain that is the most labor intensive. Plastic that looks identical to the casual observer is sorted into groups according to different plastic types and colour. The vast majority of the work is done by hand, from prying tin seals off of bottles to removing labels and metal parts to separating components that have different colors. The act of separating and sorting the plastic increases its value by a few-fold. For example, mixed PVC is valued at Rp 100 per kg, after it is sorted according to colour and shredded, it is valued at Rp 2,200 per kg. 

Most workers are paid according to the physical demands their jobs require, which results in a large pay gap between genders and ages. The highest paying job in the facility goes to the men, who are tasked with lifting and removing plastic from the sorting facility. This requires a lot of physical endurance, but the slow pace allows for plenty of time to take coffee breaks and smoke cigarettes.

The actual sorting work done mostly by women. Their work is both very impressive and painful to watch. They sort the plastic precisely and at a very high speed by hand. Each item is cleaned of its impurities, using small rusty knives to remove seals and labels and machetes to disassemble parts into different materials and colors.

When the sorters reach a certain target, everyone receives a bonus proportionate to their salary. This motivates them to work nonstop at their fullest brain capacity, concentrating on the tedious job that can only be done by their hands. Despite the hard work, their salaries and bonuses are less than half of the men.

Drying shredded plastic

The sorted plastic is then broken down into smaller chunks with the help of a shredding machine and then melted down into products or extruded and chopped into small pellets. Most of the time, shredders are the only machine in the entire sorting facility. 

Catching shredded plastic from degreaser bath surface

The lowest paid laborers are the older women. Their age limits their ability to perform physically demanding tasks such as squatting on the ground for the entire day to sort plastic. Their task is instead to skim the shredded plastics from the surface of a tub which the shredder feeds into. They are equipped with a large colander to sift small pieces of plastic from the tub, which is filled with water mixed with an industrial strength degreaser that strips down the dirt and residue from the plastic, as well as the skin on their wrinkly hands. The only protective gear they have is a large piece of plastic bag they wrap around their body, so they don’t get too cold and wet. They work nonstop trying to keep up with the constant output from the shredding machine. Everything they don’t manage to catch flows into the waterways.

The small pieces of plastic are transferred to nearby field where they are spread around to dry. Every once in a while, the wind spreads these microplastics to nearby farms; they glitter against broad banana and cassava leaves under the hot symmetric midday sun that hovers precisely above your head.

After drying, a few women inspected the piles and hand picked pieces with discoloration and impurities. The pile are mixed throughly before packaging to ensure uniformity.  Uniformed material valued higher by manufacturers because it allows them maintain each of the mass produced product’s standard of quality.

Sundrying shreded plastic
Hand-picking discolored pieces
Mixing throughly before packing

When looking at the plastic problem, it is easy to blame the plastic producer. Visiting a plastic bag factory helped me understand another layer of the puzzle. After speaking to the owner and operator of the factory, we realized that his main motivation is keeping the business running so he can keep the machine investments going and his workers employed. His viewpoint is that plastic is incredibly valuable, and he wishes all plastic could be recycled.

Speaking to the owner of the plastic factory was an eye-opening experience. He feels sad seeing plastic being thrown away everywhere as he knows the value of this material. His factory never wastes plastic; a failed product will be re-shredded and turned into another plastic bag. He operates a closed loop, waste-less factory.

The factory owner is hopeful for the future of plastic, and looks forward to working with a more sustainable plastic. Bioplastics such as PLA (a corn based plastic) are still very expensive compared to plastic made of crude oil, so this future is still a little ways off. When it comes, his equipment will be ready to handle the change.

Clean, sorted plastics is recyclable plastics. These industries put value into waste by sorting and transforming it.

The people I met during my field trip are arguably the most fluent in the emerging field of plastic literacy. They know the value hiding in our waste and how a little sorting and separating is all that is needed to make it useful. They are closing the loop of our otherwise linear economy.

I learned too, that a lot of these tedious tasks can be easily solved by consumers putting more care into cleaning and sorting their waste properly. Clean, sorted plastics is recyclable plastics. These industries put value into waste by sorting and transforming it.

We all know that plastic waste is problematic, but as consumers on the other side of the world we often feel detached and helpless. Our society places so much care and attention into designing for production. We focus on how each product performs, how it can be efficiently assembled, the advertising, shipping to stores, packaging, and customer service. But we ignore what happens after the sale. In our capital driven society, this side is left out of the equation.

Despite its negative connotations, plastic is a dream material. It can defy nature, is necessary for the creation of millions of lifesaving and helpful tools, and has the potential to be usable in a circular manner.

The long journey through a delicate yet complex supply chain unfortunately allows one to forget about their trash, lose connection to materials, or feel helpless seeing the problem so domestic yet so far away. 

Circling back to Vancouver, we’ll continue to Melt Collective’s Lab. Here, these complex recycling processes are distilled into a room with machines and tools that empower people to transform waste into something useful and beautiful. Innovation needs to have a place and ideas need to be tested. Beyond plastic, Melt facilitates transdisciplinary collaboration in various circular economy projects – from cigarette skateboards to mushroom toilets. We are a combination of people, tools, platforms and knowledge