By Wasima Khan, PhD Candidate in Corporate Law, Erasmus University - Rotterdam
"Don't say no to plastic. Say no to plastic which is non-degradable." Speaking at a TEDx conference in his home country of Indonesia last year, Sugianto Tandio -- President Director of PT Tirta Marta -- shared what he is calling his "redemption story." Formerly in the conventional plastics business, he explained his current passion for solving the global plastic waste problem as both an activist and a social entrepreneur. The 3P"s of people, planet, profit - also known as the Triple Bottom Line -- is the holy grail for business sustainability practitioners. Can plastics, Mr. Tandio's redemption story, fit in?
According to a report commissioned by PlasticsEurope, and authored by British futurologist Ray Hammond, plastics will continue to play an important role in meeting many of the world's crucial future challenges. These include: population growth, climate change, energy shortages, globalization, and technological change. A world without plastics is indeed hard to imagine. In her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, author and journalist Susan Freinkel describes how plastics have invaded our daily lives when she recollects a failed experiment in trying to go just one day without touching anything plastic.
Despite the many uses for what Mr. Tandio calls a "miracle product," plastics are still very often perceived negatively in the public eye, especially in debates regarding environmental sustainability. This negative view is often rooted in the fact that it takes a long time for conventional plastics to break down in nature. Coupled with the fact that we discard our plastics almost immediately after use, one can understand why it would receive such negative publicity. According to Mr. Tandio, "plastic is so strong, microbes could only destroy it after 1,000 years." What consumers can do on a daily basis is to make eco-conscious decisions by deciding to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic bags. Although Mr. Tandio acknowledges that he is also a big fan of recycling, he admits that this may only be a part of the solution. By the end of the day, only a small percentage of all plastics end up being recycled. What Mr. Tandio is trying to do instead is to make a difference by incorporating an innovative and ecologically sound solution in the plastics production chain.
Since 2000, Mr. Tandio's flexible packaging company Tirta Marta has been busy with the development of two environment-friendly new - now patented - technologies: OXIUM® and ECOPLAS®. Oxium is a 100% biodegradable additive that quickens the degradation process of regular plastics to as little as two years, depending on circumstances such as heat, UV exposure, and humidity. Ecoplas is a biodegradable bag made of cassava (also called tapioca), which is fully able to degrade in ten weeks when buried among active microbes or insects.
After dedicating many years and spending millions of dollars in research and development, Tirta Marta has successfully brought these two eco-friendly solutions to market during the last two years. A recent feature in Forbes Magazine Indonesia described how Mr. Tandio's company conquered the Indonesian market for plastic shopping bags in less than a year. Tirta Marta's success was to a large degree aided by a set of official guidelines aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags. The guidelines were implemented after an agreement between the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) and the Jakarta administration. The agreement asked retailers to commit themselves to reducing the use of plastic bags, for example, by offering non-plastic or degradable bags, creating a perfect opportunity for Mr. Tandio to step in.
In a Jakarta Post article, Mr. Tandio explains how Tirta Marta's innovative approach not only benefits the environment (by reducing customers' carbon footprint), but also has a social impact as it reaches out to local cassava farmers in Indonesia. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Indonesia is the second largest cassava producer in Asia. By using organic fair trade cassava as a durable source of raw material, Mr. Tandio's company can create jobs and have an impact on the local communities. Given the success in their local market, Tirta Marta now has ambitious plans to expand its market base to the United States to serve customers on an international level.
The story of Mr. Tandio may just be a leading example of how people, planet, and profit can go hand-in-hand through pioneering social entrepreneurship. His solution does not however come without criticism. With biodegradable bags specifically, the question remains whether they are indeed the magical answer to the growing plastic waste problem. An article in the Guardian reveals two main objections to biodegradable bags: such bags do not degrade as well as claimed and that it is an environmental and economic waste to manufacture bags that are designed to fall apart. Given how energy-intensive it is to create plastic bags, it is hardly a convincing argument to claim that one is doing the environment a favor by propagating the use of a single-purpose one-time good.
In addition, while using cassava in South-East Asia creates local jobs, Tirta Marta is running the risk of facing criticism for potentially exacerbating any ongoing food shortages. It is politically difficult to use cassava in the production of plastic bags instead of as nourishment in the midst of a global food crisis -- a debate that many consumers around the world are all too familiar with given the issues involved with using food crops in the biofuels industry.
While these concerns remain unsolved for now, Mr. Tandio continues his redemption story, and optimistically looks toward the future, saying that his work is not yet finished: "this is just the beginning."
Wasima Khan is a writer for Student Reporter. We are a journalism incubator and online media outlet, providing media coverage of events and featuring current topics in management and economics around the world.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, in recognition of the latter's Social Entrepreneurs Class of 2013. To see all the post in the series, click here.
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