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Entrepreneurship in the Environmental Field: Insights from Women-led Businesses on Tackling Plastic Waste

3 November 2022

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Jakarta, 3 November 2022: The Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) through a collaboration between the Entrepreneurship, Startups, and Innovation (E-S-I) Knowledge Lab and the Regional Knowledge Centre for Marine Plastic Debris (RKC-MPD) hosted a webinar on 3 November 2022, titled 'Female Entrepreneurs in the ASEAN Region: Innovation to Tackle Marine Plastic Waste'. This webinar aimed to raise awareness about the alarming marine plastic pollution and highlight the innovative efforts taken by the private sector in addressing the issue.

The webinar invited three female entrepreneurs addressing plastic waste issues in the region—Ms Ovy Sabrina of Rebricks Indonesia, Dr Supatchaya Techachoochert of Refill Station in Thailand, and Ms Juliana Adam of Biji-biji Initiative in Malaysia—who shared their respective stories, including challenges and lessons learned that came along their journey as sustainability entrepreneurs.

The three women admitted that their forays into sustainable business were somewhat accidental, but the goal was similar: Promoting zero waste lifestyle.

‘Me and my partner, Novita, were beginning to practice the lifestyle when we realised there are certain types of plastic waste that we cannot recycle,’ said Ms Sabrina, referring to her business partner, Rebrick CEO, Novita Tan.

Not wanting to 'pass down' non-recyclable plastic waste to their children’s generation, both came up with an idea to recycle plastic waste into building materials and founded Rebricks Indonesia.

As for Ms Adam, it was the endeavour to generate alternative incomes for underserved community members in Malaysia that led her way to become an entrepreneur. Together with her team, she is working to improve the livelihood of others while also championing environmental sustainability through her waste recycling and management company, Biji-biji Initiative.

Meanwhile, Dr Techachoochert’s interest in the business grew when living alternately between the forest and the city for her doctoral research in Biology.  As she observed how most environmental problems are rooted in urban lifestyle, she decided to open Refill Station to raise public awareness of plastic waste. Today, that first bulk store in Thailand she co-founded with her friends is more than just a business.

'Having a store is a kind of communication channel, so I have more room to express my interest, talk about the problem, and I can point out what other alternatives that people can do to help,' Ms Techachoochert explained.

Changing Consumer Behaviour: Between Incentives and Facilities

In the efforts to encourage recycling behaviour, the ability to compromise is important for entrepreneurs to have. Dr Techachoochert learned that taking a hard-liner approach will lose people’s adherence. She believes that by being a leader who is adaptive and able to compromise, one can set an example that could encourage people to follow.

Ms Adam observed how in Malaysia, giving incentives to make people segregate and recycle their waste seems to work to build the habit of recycling among underserved community members. However, the same approach did not work as well for urban areas, she said.

The situation is similar with Indonesia. According to Ms Sabrina, incentives only worked for the area where such income had a meaningful impact. ‘Urban communities, especially middle-class citizens, do not care about the incentives; they would take action only when a formal system is in place,’ she said.

Dr Techachoochert said that infrastructure should be in place to support people in segregating and recycling waste. She shared a story about a family member who used to segregate waste when living in Japan but stopped the practice once she moved back to Thailand.

‘Because there are no facilities to build trust. It is contradictory when we tell people to segregate waste at home, but the government only provides one bin to dump every waste into. There is no clear visibility that the mixed waste will be segregated and recycled at the end,’ she explained.

Private Sector and Government Need to Move at the Same Pace

The private sector in Thailand, according to Ms Techachoochert, is generally quite aware of and enthusiastic about addressing plastic pollution. However, despite the recent good news about the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) implementation, she thought the government is still relatively slow in responding to this issue.

'The private sector is getting ready, but laws and policies are holding them back from moving forward,' she said.

Ms Adam, however, believes private sector could elevate the environmental debate by simply adopting green practices without having to wait for policies to precede. ‘Sure, policies should be put in place, but I strongly believe that each individual and organisation, each business, must take the initiatives on their own,’ she said.

She added that business owners can start small by evaluating their operational practices, switching plastic packaging to more sustainable alternatives, and forming partnerships with other stakeholders to ensure material circularity.

In terms of sustaining their business, Ms Sabrina believes social entrepreneurs need to balance their idealism and their adaptability. ‘At the end of the day, as an entrepreneur, you need to sell. Otherwise, you cannot sustain your company. You need to create revenue, otherwise, you cannot create more impact,’ she said, adding that having the right business partner enables her to balance these two important sides.

Various Government Supports to Accelerate Impactful Businesses

When asked about other supports needed from the government, Dr Techachoochert said the government should be able to respond to the rapid changes quickly.

‘They used to give classification codes for products that come with containers but did not provide any codes for refilling products that come without containers. Despite this, we didn’t give in, we kept pushing on. And then the government approached us to gain some insights from our business, and only later did they launch relevant policies after the shop had been already operational,' she said.

Additionally, Ms Techachoochert hopes that the government could help promote the businesses and educate the public about the problem they are trying to solve through various communication channels under the authority.

In Malaysia, Ms Adam said a policy aiming to enable multistakeholder partnerships has been in place. This policy fosters collaborations between big corporations, non-governmental organisations, and social enterprises to create a collective impact.

‘For example, recognising the impact that the third sector can create, and then ensuring support from the bigger players. Although the policy is in place, the execution is another story. But I feel like it is a good first step towards it,’ she explained.

Ms Adam highlighted another big challenge: the lack of local recycling infrastructure. She said she hoped logistic support to set up the necessary infrastructure, especially from the government, could come into place.

Ms Sabrina, meanwhile, urged the government to allow SMEs like her own to be the supplier for government projects.

‘Our team has worked hard to create reliable products at a competitive price, and despite having ample supply of non-recyclable plastic waste to create eco-friendly construction material, the demand for our products is not up to par. We believe the opportunity to be a government supplier will significantly leverage our business and the impact we could create.’ she said.

Mr Michikazu Kojima, Senior Advisor to the President on Environmental Issues at ERIA who also leads the Regional Knowledge Centre for Marine Plastic Debris, reiterated the important roles played by the private sector to lead the way for a more circular economy for plastics.

'I believe we can all agree that the private sector plays an instrumental role in our collective efforts to put a break on the current trend of plastic pollution. With its economic leverage, the private sector has the potential to nudge the conventional and linear way of plastic consumption and production towards a more circular one,' said Mr Kojima.

Dr Giulia Ajmone Marsan, the Director of Strategy and Partnerships of ERIA, said entrepreneurs and business models can really offer very important solutions for this pressing global challenge. ‘Therefore, it is very important also for policymakers to hear from entrepreneurs and innovators,' Dr Marsan said.

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