Two women entrepreneurs turn hard-to-recycle food packaging into paving bricks in Indonesia

JAKARTA: At first glance, the 1,000 sq m property situated on a bustling Jakarta street looked like a regular brick making factory.

There were stacks of paving bricks of varying colours, sizes and shapes – hexagonal, octagonal and rectangular – sitting on its front yard, ready to be shipped.

A sack of coarsely shredded plastic food packaging at Rebricks factory, Jakarta. The plastics will used to produce paving bricks. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Its car park showcased the factory’s best products, intricately placed to demonstrate the many possible interlocking patterns and arrangements.

Inside the open-air factory, shaded by a metal sheet roof suspended 10 m up in the air, were large concrete mixers and brick-making hydraulic presses.

But what makes Rebricks factory different is the mountain of domestic waste at one section of the property and the sacks of finely shredded plastics in another corner.

Rebricks founders Ovy Sabrina (left) and Tan Novita posing in front of a stack of bricks containing recycled multi-layered plastic at their factory in Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

For the last one year, Rebricks has been making paving bricks out of multi-layered plastic, which is used to package everything from instant coffee, snacks, cookies to single-use shampoo, detergent and liquid soap.

These empty packets, which comprises layers of different plastics and aluminium foil, are known for being difficult to recycle. They are usually sent straight to landfills and incinerators, or end up polluting rivers and beaches.

“No one is recycling these multi-layered plastics. It is too difficult to separate the different kinds of plastics and aluminium foil so each can be recycled and the process can be so expensive that recyclers don’t want to deal with them,” Rebricks co-founder Ovy Sabrina told CNA.

“It is quite scary actually. This means that with every food we consume, we are creating waste which will go straight to landfills and will not degrade for decades. In fact, 50 per cent of the trash found in beach clean ups are this packaging.”

A worker at Rebricks factory in Jakarta dislodging jammed plastics out of a shredder. The plastics are used to make paving bricks. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Sabrina and her long-time friend Tan Novita were determined to find ways to recycle these discarded packets.

“We chose to make building materials because Ovy’s family owns a paving brick making factory. So, to some extent, we have the knowledge and resources to start producing recycled bricks and not start our business completely from nothing,” the other co-founder Novita told CNA.

TRIAL AND ERROR

But despite having the experience and machinery necessary to make conventional concrete bricks, producing the construction material out of multi-layered plastics proved to be a challenge.

“We must have tried 100 different methods and formulas. It took us one and a half year of trial and error. There were moments when we felt like giving up,” Novita recounted.

The 35-year-old former NGO worker said that Rebricks first experimented by melting multi-layered plastics to create paving bricks. “But the process produces toxic fumes. It was also so complicated that we could only produce two square meters of bricks a day,” she said.

A worker at Rebricks factory feeding multi-layered plastics into a shredder. The plastics are then used to make paving bricks. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

The pair then tried producing bricks completely out of cement mixed with shredded plastics. But the end product was in a paving brick which could easily crumble and left finely shredded plastics polluting the soil underneath.

They finally settled on creating bricks with two layers. The top layer – the one which comes into frequent contact with automobiles, pedestrians and the elements – is completely made out of concrete, while the bottom layer is produced out of a plastic and cement mixture.

Paving bricks produced by recycling company Rebricks. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

However, they still needed to come up with the perfect plastic and cement mixture which is durable, fire retardant and environmentally safe. The bricks must also withstand weight of 250kg per square centimetre, the Indonesian standard for paving bricks used in parking lots, pavements, parks and jogging tracks.

This meant building dozens of prototypes and sending samples to be tested in laboratories. “We went to the labs so many times, I think the technicians got tired of seeing us,” Novita said, adding that Rebricks spent thousands of dollars to test the many samples they produced. 

In November 2019, after one-and-a-half year of experimenting, Rebricks finally launched its first line of paving brick products.

Rebricks co-founder Tan Novita showing off a paving brick produced by the company. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Rebricks had to make compromises, sacrificing the amount of trash they can compress into a single brick to gain structural integrity and keep prices competitive.

“Today, our bricks contain 20 per cent waste. We wish we could put in more (plastic), but we have to consider our products’ quality and production cost. But we will continue to innovate and improve (the bricks’ waste) percentage,” Sabrina said.

Novita added that although the percentage might seem small, Rebricks can already recycle up to 88,000 discarded food packets every day.

OVERWHELMING RESPONSE

After Rebricks’ launch, the two co-founders immediately got to work to find a steady supply of waste for recycling.      

They set up three collection points, two in Jakarta and another in the city’s western suburbs Serpong, where people can send their discarded plastic packets to.

A worker at Rebricks factory feeding multi-layered plastics into a shredder. The plastics are then used to make paving bricks. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“The response has been overwhelming. We got so many people sending us their waste. We are actually amazed that people would go to the trouble of sorting out their trash and have them sent. It’s not cheap sending them here,” Novita said.

“It makes us realise that people actually care about this issue. They just don’t know where to send their waste.”

Novita said in the morning there will be trash waiting for them before they even open up the factory. “By the afternoon, our office will be full of waste,” she said.

Boxes of food packaging sent by shops and individuals at Rebricks factory in Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“But we can only take so much. We’re just starting and demand (for our bricks) is not that much yet. Because of the pandemic, construction has slowed and people’s consumption and thus waste produced increases because everyone is spending more time at home.”

Sabrina said the COVID-19 pandemic has also made it hard for the budding business to market its products.

“We even had to shut down our factory because of the lockdown. We couldn’t go around and meet potential clients. But thankfully, demand is growing, despite the situation right now,” she said.

Sabrina said, in the beginning, they could only sell 12 sq m worth of bricks each month to individuals looking to refurbish their yards and gardens, but through word of mouth and social media, interest has been growing.

“Right now, we can sell 100 sq m to 200 sq m a month. That is still far from our production capacity of 100 sq m a day. But we are grateful, every month demand is higher than the month before,” she said.

Rebricks co-founder Ovy Sabrina showing the shredded plastics used to produce paving bricks. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Rebricks has also attracted interest from corporate clients and big developers.  

“We have worked with one food manufacturing company. They send their waste to us, we convert the waste into bricks and they bought the bricks so they can use it for their CSR (corporate social responsibility) programme,” she said.

“We are exploring this kind of collaborations so we can sell more bricks and recycle more waste.” 

FUTURE INNOVATION

Sabrina said Rebricks is exploring the possibility of recycling waste into hollow bricks which are used as building claddings and interior walls.

“We can use more waste for our hollow bricks because the strength requirement is actually lower than paving bricks. We don’t need to worry about the bricks crumbling and causing waste to spill because these bricks are usually plastered in cement,” she said.

“We have tested (hollow brick) samples and the results are promising. We just need to test the finished product. Because of COVID-19, the labs are closed. Hopefully, we can launch our hollow brick products next year.” 

Sabrina said Rebricks is also trying to find ways to improve its paving brick products so they can incorporate more waste.

“We want Rebricks to provide a solution for our waste problem and for people looking for a more sustainable and green way to constructing their buildings,” she said.

By : Nivell Rayda – CNA

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