Fighting for Clean Oceans – and a Better Life

Fighting plastic waste in the oceans on land – this is what Plastic Bank® is dedicated to accomplishing together with partners like METRO. The social enterprise enables the exchange of all kinds of plastic for currency and other rewards, monetizing plastic waste while improving the lives of collector communities. Ika Somawati from Bali in Indonesia is one of these collectors.

Kuta Beach, Indonesia

It’s 6 am and 24 degrees Celsius. On this day in June, temperatures are particularly pleasant; the air is cool and moist. Ika Somawati has just woken up. She goes into the kitchen, turns on the gas burner, and prepares breakfast for her family. Ika lives in Denpasar, near Kuta Beach on the southwestern tip of Bali. The archipelago is made up of over 17,000 islands, offering thousands of kilometres of perfect beaches, tropical bays, and vibrant cities. To tourists, the region is a paradise – to Ika, it’s home.

One by one, everyone comes into the kitchen: Ika’s mother-in-law, draped in her colourful sarong, followed by Ika’s 3 children and her husband, who grabs his lunchbox as he heads out the door. As a taxi driver, the morning rush hour is critical for his business. Last year he was still working in a hotel, but he was forced to seek new employment due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Coral reefs in danger

Ika Somawati, Kuta Beach

Ika Somawati, Kuta Beach

Ika’s workday can now officially begin. At 7.30 am, she heads to her favourite spots on the beach. The young mother is on a mission for the Plastic Bank: 5 days a week, she collects, sorts, and delivers plastic waste to the local recycling centre. Ika is one of the hundreds of collectors working in Bali and one of over 14,000 active collectors throughout Indonesia. Ika’s work is very close to her heart as a native of Bali. ‘Every time I pick up plastic, I am not only making money for my family, but I am also respecting the planet, and our beaches.’ Since childhood, Ika has experienced a creeping change: Earlier, it was driftwood, pumice, and seaweed that washed in with the waves. Today, it’s bits of plastic, sanitary napkins, and disposable diapers.

In 2017, the government of Bali declared a ‘waste emergency’ because a 6-kilometre stretch of beach was covered in plastic garbage. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest plastic polluters – while at the same time Bali possesses one-of-a-kind natural treasures and lies within the area known as the Coral Triangle, which is home to the greatest variety of marine life in the world.

Full circle: a green light for recycling

When Plastic Bank opened its first offices in Bali in 2018, its mission was clear: stop the plastic before it reaches the oceans. Plastic waste is generally disposed of on land, but it ends up in the waterways – and eventually the ocean – through mismanagement. For Canadian activist David Katz, this catastrophic situation provided the impetus for change. In 2013, he founded Plastic Bank and entered partnerships with international corporations. At first, collectors were sceptical, and established recyclers saw the programme as a threat to their existence. However, through a comprehensive awareness and advocacy campaign, Plastic Bank succeeded in setting up 242 collection points in Indonesia alone. Plastic waste is collected at these centres so it can be recycled and converted into new products and packaging.

In June 2021, METRO launched a long-term, international partnership with select suppliers along with the innovative social enterprise Plastic Bank. The goal is an ambitious one: Over the first 12 months of the project alone, the aim is to intercept more than 65 million plastic bottles before they enter the world’s oceans. This equates to more than a million kilos of plastic waste. With this initiative, METRO has the simultaneous goal of improving the lives of the people who collect the discarded waste on land.

Protecting our environment – and fighting poverty

Back to Ika Somawati and her daily work. At midday – it is now 32 degrees – Ika heads home with the plastic bottles and other waste she has collected. She sorts the materials, separating clear and coloured plastics and removing the coloured lids. The job is rhythmic and relaxing, she says; while she works, she chats with her mother-in-law, and her 4-year-old son has fun with the different colours as he makes piles of red and blue caps.

Finally, Ika takes the sorted plastic to the Plastic Bank collection point. There, she greets the other collectors and talks to them about work, family, and when the tourists are likely to start coming back to Bali. The collection point weighs what Ika has collected and pays her premiums for her plastic. She also receives points and credits that give her family access to basic needs such as school fees, health insurance, internet access, and gas for cooking.

At 3 pm, Ika says goodbye to her colleagues and picks her children up from school. On the way home she stops at the supermarket to buy some groceries. She makes payment using the tokens she received for collecting plastic. In the evening, around 6 pm, her home is bathed in the gold-purple light of the sunset and her husband returns from work exhausted. The family gathers for dinner and talks about the events of the day – and about collecting plastic. Ika’s work has changed her opinion about waste. Now, when she looks at the beach, she is thankful that she can make a contribution to protecting the ocean: ‘With the daily collecting and sorting, I see an opportunity for me and for all other people to take the first step out of the cycle of poverty.’

Working together for a sustainable future

On World Oceans Day 2021, METRO launched the METRO Plastic Initiative and became the first wholesale enterprise in the world to enter into a long-term partnership with Plastic Bank. In total, the initiative comprises 3 pillars for contributing to sustainable change: keeping plastic out of the seas in cooperation with Plastic Bank, reducing plastic in packaging, and promoting more conscious purchasing and recycling decisions on the part of customers.

METRO has already committed itself to sustainable solutions in the past, such as drastically reducing its plastic footprint by 2025 as announced in a statement published in 2018. From 2018 to the end of the 2019/20 financial year, METRO had already achieved the long-term reduction of plastic in its product range by 491 tonnes. The topic of packaging is an important part of the sustainability strategy for METRO as a wholesale company.

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