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A candid conversation with our Chief Impact Officer

Posted by Erik Sumarkho Spiniello on
A candid conversation with our Chief Impact Officer

Most great things in life can’t be bought with money - for example true friends, love and purpose. But when it comes to providing access to basic waste services and supporting waste pickers, funding is crucial. This is why our business model was designed so that revenue made from the sale of each product goes towards achieving our mission. To be exact, we prevent 10 kilograms of plastic from entering the oceans by supporting waste pickers and building community waste banks. From the start, we wanted to provide a scalable and sustainable source of income to improve waste management in the countries that need it most.

We are proud of our humble beginnings and mission. For this, we decided to sit down with our Chief Impact Officer (Zulfikar) to talk about ocean plastic, creating change and For Purpose Recycling. Without further ado, we will begin.

I’m sure people would assume you’re passionate about solving waste problems because you’re our Chief Impact Officer, but I don’t think people really know how much you truly love it.

Yes, I’ve always felt excited and curious about solving waste problems. While studying engineering at the Institut Teknologi Bandung, I worked with local non-profits on small community-based waste management programmes. During this time, I found a very deep passion for waste management and so dedicated my professional career to it. After graduating, I co-founded Waste4Change which is the first responsible waste management social enterprise provider in Indonesia. Since then, I have been consulting for designing landfills, recycling plants and waste collection programs. 

That's such a fascinating career you’ve had. How did it all start? How did you first get interested in waste? 

There have been a series of events in my life that made me interested in solving waste challenges. After graduating from school, I applied to study environmental engineering at the Institut Teknologi Bandung. I thought that Bandung would be a more naturally beautiful and calm place to live in than my hometown of Jakarta. Sadly, I wasn't and I remember seeing in almost every corner of the streets of the city big piles of rubbish. Observing how rubbish creates so many problems in people’s daily lives like creating big traffic jams was one of the first moments I associated waste as a socio-economic issue. 

On the 21st of February 2005, a nearby operating landfill called Leuwigajah experienced an enormous landslide after being struck with heavy rain for 2 days. The landslide traveled south-southwest for over one kilometer which resulted in buring 2 surrounding villages. The event killed more than 143 people and injured many more. Because of this disaster, the landfill closed its operation. In the following months, similar events happened across the city of Bandung, all while I was doing my first year of university. 

Another key event that made me want to devote my life to solving waste problems happened in my last year of university while doing a final year assessment. I had to do a waste composition study, and a local family of waste pickers gave me a hand to sort through huge piles of waste. Seeing all this food wasted made me super frustrated, which only grew when I saw the waste picker’s boy that was helping me grab an unpeeled orange and eat it. The exercise made me realise that waste is not only an environmental problem, but a social one too. It’s hard to imagine being a waste picker, poor and hungry all the time, yet constantly seeing others create so much waste.

It must’ve been very frustrating studying environmental engineering and understanding how to avoid big catastrophes yet not have been able to do anything about it. Now you have risen to the occasion and are actually working in the field improving societies through waste management and resource recovery! What has been your favourite project working in waste?

My favourite projects are those seeking to support a more circular economy like those that incentivise waste reduction and prevention. There’s an awesome project I’ve been working on that aims to make global standards on reusing and refilling. The objective is to gradually cut out the single-use plastic consumption and replace it with reusable and refillable stuff. 

Quick question, proper waste management or going plastic-free?

Hmm… This is tough. I do believe that humans can live without single-use plastics, but the transition to go there will need a lot of effort. The same effort (or even more) should be channeled towards improving waste management since plastic is only the tip of the iceberg. However, when we talk about improving waste management, it should not be about dealing with the waste that is already generated. We have to work deeper, which is to prevent waste generation. By doing that, there will be a lot of benefits, not only that we can solve environmental problems but on the way we may also bring social and economic benefits. 

So it seems like both investment in improving waste management and reducing what's generated is the way forward. What advice might you have for someone who's feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation of ocean plastic?

Nelson Mandela once said “It seems impossible until it’s done”. I believe a lot of people (if not all of us) have experienced this at least once in our lives. Maybe it was some math problems in school or else, eventually we managed to solve the problem. The important thing is to never stop trying and stay aware of improving our ways. I truly believe that we can preserve a better environment for generations to come.

Yes, love an inspirational Nelson Mandela quote! Did you ever imagine that this would be your job? That you would know so much about bins?

Yes and no. I knew that I wanted to work in a sector that endeavoured to make the world a better place. However, I didn’t know that I’d be working in waste and it would be so interesting  :)

Okay final question, what's your favourite belt colour?

My favourite colour is the Subak Green, because I prefer earth colours around me. It's very green here in Aceh Sumatra where I live so its nice to blend with my environment. If I lived in Bali or Raja Ampat, I'd probably wear the Lolo Blue :)





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