Trash to treasure: Indonesian firm turns plastic into bricks

Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, has a construction boom and plastic waste problem; solving both could help achieve its climate goals.

Jakarta, which has 10 million inhabitants, is dotted with construction sites that emit high levels of greenhouse gases, working on new train lines, malls, leisure complexes, apartments and offices. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Ovy Sabrina fights plastic waste in Indonesia by spreading noodle packets, coffee sachets, straws and other trash around the sprawling archipelago - entombed in eco-friendly bricks.

Her family knows not to stand in her way on environmental issues, especially five years ago when she came up with the idea of making bricks using single-use plastic to counter pollution and the capital Jakarta’s high-emissions building boom.

Using machinery from her family’s conventional brick factory and tapping into her zero-waste lifestyle, Sabrina and her friend Novita Tan launched their green construction materials startup Rebricks in 2018.

“My family usually tell me to go ahead and do whatever I want. If people disagree with me, I will do it,” said the 37-year-old, who regularly locks horns with her siblings over sorting household waste and recycling in their shared home.

“‘Just do it’ is what we always tell people who want to get into recycling initiatives.”

With more than half the region’s population living in cities and rising, Asia’s urban population is soaring as wealth increases and people seek better lives - putting huge pressure on infrastructure, public services and affordable housing. 

Bustling Jakarta, which has 10 million inhabitants, is dotted with construction sites that emit high levels of greenhouse gases, working on new train lines, malls, leisure complexes, apartments and offices. 

But on the ground, residents vie with street-hawkers for space, and struggle with the city’s notorious traffic jams, regular flooding and choking air pollution

As Indonesia’s capital grows, waste collection and recycling services have struggled to keep pace.

Single-use plastics - such as drinking straws, confectionery packets, plastic bags and coffee sachets - are usually sent to already full landfill sites, burned by informal trash collectors, or simply thrown into the city’s canals.

As a developing country, it’s impossible for us to say ‘don’t develop’. Development will keep on going, but at least if you recycle waste at the same time, it can help.

Ovy Sabrina, co-founder, Rebricks

Looking to tackle Indonesia’s twin challenges of trash and polluting urban growth, Rebricks made a breakthrough in late 2019 by creating a brick using single-use plastic waste that meets industry standards.

The company mixes volcanic ash, mountain stones, plastic waste donated from households across Indonesia, and cement to make its bricks, which do not contain sand like regular ones.

It supplies charities and other groups that build affordable homes and sanitation buildings for poorer communities.

Rebricks’ prices are competitive, while its bricks - long-lasting and strong as conventional bricks - are non-combustible, and the paving stones it also makes do not get slippery when wet, Sabrina said.

Rebricks’ website says it has production capacity of 100 sq metres (1,076 sq ft) a day.

But Sabrina declined to give details of sales, adding that production is limited by the company’s basic brick-making technique and labour-intensive machinery, with plastic waste donations often outstripping demand for bricks.

The startup - which uses social media to appeal for plastic waste - is in talks with the government to supply materials for subsidised housing projects.

“As a developing country, it’s impossible for us to say ‘don’t develop’,” said Sabrina.

“Development will keep on going, but at least if you recycle waste at the same time, it can help.”

Construction, buildings part of climate solution

The buildings and construction sector is responsible for about 40 per cent of global energy-related emissions - and reducing this will be vital for countries to meet their international climate and environmental pledges, industry experts said.

About half of the sector’s emissions come from construction and the rest from how buildings are heated or cooled, and powered, once in use.

The industry also accounts for 50 per cent of all extracted materials, while cement production alone is responsible for 7 per cent of global carbon emissions, said Lea Ranalder, part of the climate change team at UN-Habitat, a U.N. agency that promotes sustainable human settlements.

Less than 9 per cent of the materials consumed by the sector are circular - recycled or re-used - leading to a “we build, we throw away” mentality, she noted.

“The buildings and construction industry is the overlooked giant when we talk about climate change and how we tackle climate change,” she said.

“Without really tackling the sector, when we talk about the climate crisis, we will not get there.”

Reforming the fragmented industry is complex. And many developers in Asia are focused on profits and affordability, with the perception that greener designs and building materials are expensive, industry experts said.

Constructing greener buildings pushes costs up by 3 per cent-5 per cent depending on the type of building, said Jonathan Duwyn, a buildings and construction expert at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

But over time, it becomes cheaper as the buildings cost less to run, he said, adding that “overall the cost is not much higher and the more we do it, the costs will go down”.

In addition, training the industry’s workforce - and ensuring that universities and architecture schools promote sustainability - is a huge opportunity to create well-paid green jobs, experts said.

“If governments make a commitment to invest and expand green building developments, this will incentivise construction workers to pursue these types of skills, knowing that there will be guaranteed work for them in the future,” said Nick Jeffries of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which advocates for circular economies.

Mix traditional and modern for greener cities

Indonesian architect Andi Subagio’s next project will be a pedestrian plaza outside one of Jakarta’s new mass rapid transit stations.

Sitting in a Jakarta restaurant he designed and built using Rebricks materials, Subagio - who is passionate about making his city more sustainable - said the eatery makes better use of natural ventilation rather than installing air conditioning.

The 33-year-old sees great benefits in combining both modern and traditional designs and building materials, adding that towering structures built with steel, concrete and glass are a relatively new trend.

“Traditional (designs) are where we can learn how to live more sustainably,” said Subagio, founder of SASO architecture studio.

UNEP’s Duwyn also said the industry should use fewer new materials in construction, and do more to extend the lifespan of existing buildings. Natural ventilation, using nature and adding shade are also vital to help cooling in a warmer world, he said.

For construction materials, he pointed to bio-based waste for insulation and sustainably logged wood as options.

Socially, however, it is often difficult to revive older technologies because many people feel that living in a modern concrete building signals success in life, he added.

Asia is home to some of the fastest-growing construction markets, and projects are picking up pace after a pause during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There are plenty of green buildings being built but their construction is outpaced by less well-planned, less sustainably sourced, less well-designed projects at a variety of scales,” said Eli Elinoff, a lecturer in cultural anthropology at the Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington.

Back in Jakarta, entrepreneur Sabrina said larger developers she has spoken to are often more focused on costs than the environment.

Such developers, which may build a thousand new homes for example, usually have preferred vendors for materials and often view trying something new as risky, she said.

Undeterred, Sabrina’s company plans to open a second factory in Central Java and another on the resort island of Bali this year - and she hopes to start teaching awareness of plastic waste in schools next year.

“Maybe we can replicate this on smaller islands in Indonesia, so we can create bigger impact,” she said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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