Strewn on the streets, sidewalks, landfills and gutters of many of Indonesia’s urban centres are millions of pieces of plastic litter, in all forms, shapes and sizes. As citizens, most of us are aware of the physical and chemical havoc this is wreaking on the country and the world. After all, durable plastics made of hydrocarbons take a thousand years or more to naturally degrade. But sadly, even with this knowledge, many of us choose to ignore the facts and continue to use and discard plastics, from bags to microbeads in beauty products, every day.
Sugianto Tandio aims to change this. He’s the heir of PT Tirta Marta, one of the pioneers of the plastics industry in Indonesia, and his story starts in 1995, when he returned to Indonesia after 10 years of living and working in the US. While there, Sugianto studied engineering at North Dakota University and then worked as an engineer for consumer goods giant 3M. It was there that he developed a passion for research and development and was driven to come back home to implement what he had learned.
And so it was that in the 10 years from 2000-2010, he and his R&D team developed Ecoplas, a biodegradable plastic made from tapioca that shows signs of degradation in as little as a few weeks depending on the amount of micro-organisms present, and Oxium, an additive to regular plastic resin that quickens the degrading process of any plastic products depending on their life-cycle, both of which are patented under the PT Tirta Marta name. Out of all patents worldwide, only 3 per cent ever make it to the market: PT Tirta Marta’s products are among these.
“When we launched into the market, our very first product was modern market shopping bags. Within the first year, 80-90 per cent of modern retailers made the swap to using degradable bags. Today, almost 99 per cent of shopping bags in Indonesia are degradable, making it the only country in the world with such a high use of green plastics,” he tells Indonesia Tatler as we sit in a meeting room decorated with plastic murals at his factory in Cikupa, Tangerang.
Local and foreign retailers such as Indomaret, Hypermart, Zara and Gap now use PT Tirta Marta’s green plastic technologies. Ninety per cent of plastic bags for retailers around the country use PT Tirta Marta’s green plastic technologies and it now has 12 representatives around the world, with Vietnam and Malaysia among its top markets, as well as the US. Producing environmentally friendly products can mean higher production costs, which, in turn, can result in higher prices in the market. However, to Sugianto’s surprise, the players in the markets in which he operates were extremely accepting of the costs given how much they know about the damage that plastics do.
“All around the world, there are probably more than a hundred different kinds of green plastic technology, but the only reason that these are in limited use is because of the costs involved,” says Sugianto. “But for the first time, we were able to bring these costs down and this is one of the major factors in our success,” he explains, adding that technology alone does not create success: strategy and execution both contribute. “All in all, I believe that collaboration is extremely important,” he says.
While many of us may think that being green simply means re-using plastic bags, using recycled paper and being careful about where we throw our litter, Sugianto reminds us that we have consider the energy used in creating a product: its carbon footprint.
Indonesia is a country packed with rich resources, including human capital. It is also a country with many of its cities becoming buried under mountains of trash. However, the damage is not irreversible: it just takes the minds of people like Sugianto Tandio to explore new ways in which we can reduce the damage, and for us, as consumers, to have the willpower to change accordingly.
Text by Maina A. Harjani; Photography by Irwan Kurnia