Did you know that about 20 million people across the globe work as trash pickers? They are part of an informal economy that helps clean up streets and recover materials that can be reused or recycled. In Jakarta alone, there are over 400,000 trash pickers, many who were forced from their home villages to live in neighbourhoods in the city that are poorly sanitised.
Java Eco Project, in partnership with XSProject, is a social enterprise that helps provide fair wage employment, healthcare and education for the trash picking community in Jakarta. They also prevent materials that are not in demand by conventional recyclers, like non-biodegradable plastics, from going to landfills and being incinerated.
We got the chance to interview Java Eco Project founder, Rinka Perez, to find out more about her story and how her social enterprise supports the trash picking community in Jakarta.
Please introduce yourself, where you’re from and share one interesting fact about yourself!
My name is Rinka Perez and I’m from Australia, however, I was a refugee baby with a Cambodian mother and Cuban father. My mother is from a Teochow background and speaks fluent Mandarin. I speak fluent Cambodian and English.
When and how did Java Eco Project start?
I lived in Jakarta before moving to Singapore. While living there, I volunteered for ‘XSProject’ which is the charity that helps to support and educate a trash picker community in West Java. When I moved to Singapore, I decided to continue to help the trash picker community through Java Eco Project.
What is the trash picking community in Java like?
The community lives there so that they can make an income from trash picking. They usually migrate there from other villages due to lack of employment opportunities at their home town. Unfortunately in order to be a part of that community, they need to pay rent for boarding and they pay off this debt by trash picking. The money they make is barely enough to cover rent, food and other costs of living.
For this reason, both parents and children help to collect trash, in order to collect more volume and earn more income. Although the parents may want their children to go to school, there are often issues with enrollment, vaccinations and extra fees for school books etc. Therefore it is difficult to break the cycle and families end up staying there working as trash pickers, indefinitely.
Can you share how the raw materials are cleaned and prepared to be used in your products?
We use two sources of trash for our upcycling. It’s either collected from the trash community, in which case, they are carefully washed at our facilities using eco-friendly methods such as drying the materials in the sun.
The other sources are usually already clean, sourced directly from factories, such as off cuts or over production packaging.
The materials we use are usually non recyclable but are thick in texture and long lasting. Such as billboard banners, created this way to withstand harsh outdoor weather elements. That is why they are perfect for upcycling and it’s a shame that they are usually discarded straight into trash.
What is the trend in demand like in Singapore for upcycled products?
Consumers are more knowledgeable and Eco conscious now. They value the story behind their purchases and their makers. Many will also choose to support a sustainable product, if given the choice.
How has being a refugee before impacted your life?
I only spent my baby years in Thailand, living in a refugee camp. There, my mother faced the difficulties of food and water rations. She was given one 1 bucket of clean water a day and had to barter for food. This has always made me respect natural resources and value hard work. We moved to Australia when I was a toddler and I grew up learning English on my own and translating for my mum, in many cases.
I came from humble beginnings. I am proud to say that I was raised by a single mum and lived in an Australian commissioned housing. None of this has limited my opportunities because I have always embraced risk taking and saying ‘yes!’ even if it seemed far too difficult at the time!
Just like the children living in the trash picker community, their future should not be defined by their childhood circumstances. They too should have the opportunity to live beyond trash picking.
Do you have any tips for other social entrepreneurs looking to partner with non-profit organisations?
Coming from a corporate procurement background, I set up formal compliance and assessment documents. Each partner is onboarded like any other supplier in a corporate setting. We are guided by the UN Sustainable Development goals, and want to ensure that our partners are able to meet this standard.
What is the most challenging part of running Java Eco?
Time! I am a busy professional female with a household of 3 children (plus a dog and cat!)! Java Eco Project is my passion Project and it brings me energy, however it is a constant juggling act for us to ensure that we, as a family, work well in harmony.
What advice would you give our readers to be more environmentally and socially conscious with their consumption. Any advice specifically for parents?
You have the power to use your money towards making a purchase that not only fulfills your goals of choosing an environmentally friendly product, it can also help to UPLIFT a life of the maker. It may be not realistic to be living a 100% sustainable life but do it where you can. For example, I toilet trained all my children from age 6 months onwards (like my mother did for all her children) relying on less nappies. Supporting a local business is also an easy solution to helping the community and supporting well meaningful causes.
What is next for JEP?
Singapore is now open for corporate events again! Therefore we are focusing on corporate gifting, meetings and events. Contact us for customized corporate gifts, or special gifts such as Teacher’s day, Deepavali or CNY!
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Written by Sheena Hong