The Sunday Profile: Retno Hapsari, XSProject General Manager
Retno Hapsari stands in the middle of a group of noisy children, bubbles and snatches of excited chatter floating above their heads. It is hard to imagine there is a hotter place in Jakarta at this moment. Piles of burning rubbish spread eye-watering smoke over the settlement.
There is no vegetation. Children and adults look for respite from the heat in scraps of shade, resting in between forays to collect and sort trash.
Hapsari has just delivered toy cars and bubble blowers to the families in a South Jakarta trash-picking community that her organization, XSProject, supports.
The foundation recycles plastic and other waste materials into a wide range of products that are sold in Indonesia and, increasingly, to overseas markets as well. Part of the proceeds go directly to the community, and toward the cost of educating its children.
Lending a Hand
XSProject was started in 2002 by American artist Ann Wizner, whose work involves using waste to create art installations, sculptures and fashion pieces. Wizner founded the organization as a way to address environmental problems and poverty. Originally, Hapsari was just a supporter of the initiative, but now serves as general manager.
Prior to joining XSProject, Hapsari worked for the McDonald’s corporation as a translator and interpreter in the training department. She also organized various projects through the operations department.
During the global economic crisis in 2008, XSProject faced closure due to financial constraints.
“Ann Wizer reached out to me then and I came on full time,” Hapsari said. “I wanted to try to save it because I saw that there was lots of potential within XS activities. Now I am 150 to 200 percent involved.”
The organization is built on four principles: addressing environmental problems, improving the livelihoods of the families living in trash-picking communities, innovative design and education.
Back at XSProject’s Cilandak headquarters, there is an atmosphere of quiet industry. At the rear of the building, women rinse plastic pouches in enormous basins. Clean pouches form a colorful carpet on drying racks in another part of the yard.
On the porch, staff members cut out pattern pieces. Four machinists piece together bags, wallets, luggage tags and other items.
XSProject buys plastic waste, such as the ubiquitous detergent pouches found all over Jakarta, from trash collectors. It also buys and receives vinyl billboards from companies and trash pickers, and works with donated, unused seat covers, all of which are turned into interesting products.
“Design is very important,” Hapsari said. “The more products we sell, the more money will go to scholarship funds.”
The products use as few new materials as possible, with recycled material making up at least 50 percent of a finished product. XSProject’s designer is constantly working on new product lines, and also takes suggestions from customers.
Samples of new products are tested for two to three months, to see how they wear. The results of this design-and-test process include yoga mat bags and straps sent to Bali, computer bags to Singapore, bookmarks dispatched to an American college and hundreds of computer bags produced for the Jakarta International School.
Scraps for Scholarships
XSProject has a special relationship with JIS. The school has bins and collection points on campus for plastic, which is then passed on to XSProject. A group of JIS teachers is also paying the school fees for students from the community this coming school year.
Five percent of all XSProject sales go directly to the trash pickers. Hapsari said they are very focused on “making sure children complete 12 years of education, so they can have better jobs than their parents.”
Between 30 and 35 students will be funded this academic year.
“We pay for whatever school-related things the children need,” Hapsari said.
“For example, at the beginning of this year in grade one, they will need seven different types of uniforms. All kids from grade one to six need a set of school materials every six months.
“[In the past] parents would just not send children to school because they cannot afford [the extras], but XS tries to provide those.”
Nevertheless, it can be a challenge to make sure the children stay in school. One of the sponsored students had to return to their village after a parent fell ill. Others want to drop out. “The way they think about education is different. XS doesn’t have the power to force them,” Hapsari said.
Reason for Hope
XSProject marked another milestone this year: receiving Fair Trade accreditation. “We were audited in December 2011 and approved and accepted at the beginning of 2012,” Hapsari said.
Fair Trade Asia has welcomed XSProject, suggesting the foundation continue to improve on the administrative side. “They want a business plan, capacity-building plan, other reports, so there is some homework I need to do,” Hapsari said.
Her vision for XSProject is simple: “to see more trash-picker children have a better chance in their adult life and a better life than their parents. [To] provide school needs for every trash-picker child, as much as I possibly can.”
Hapsari said that working for XSProject has changed her own outlook. “I care more about people who are less fortunate than me, and I wish that I could change Indonesian people to care more about the place they live in.”
Having survived some tough times, XSProject and Hapsari are in it for the long haul. For the vulnerable children of one small trash-picking community, that’s reason for hope.