When Karen McDaniels worked for 3M Co. in Indonesia, she would see the same man rooting through her trash every day. Little did she know that this would change her life as she works to help change the lives of so many others.
McDaniels, who has since retired and moved back to the United States, is executive director of XSProject Indonesia, a nonprofit group that diverts plastic waste from the Cirendeu open dump in Jakarta and transforms lives.
"Our mission is to break the generational cycle of trash picking in Jakarta by educating trash pickers' children," McDaniels said.
XSProject buys plastic pouches recovered by the pickers at the landfill, paying mothers and fathers money to help support their families living at the dump.
"We ask them to bring us pieces of trash that they normally would not pick because they couldn't sell it to a recycler," she explained. "If they didn't pick it, it would either be washed into the rivers or the waste stream and end up in the garbage dump.
"You bring this stuff to us that you normally wouldn't pick and we'll pay you for it, and we'll also give your children a K through 12 education," McDaniels said.
Plastic pouches with a No. 7 resin identification code are prevalent in Indonesia, where they are used to sell products such as soaps and detergents and fabric softeners. They are everywhere.
But because of their composition, they are not recyclable in that market and end up in the trash, McDaniels said. Because of the recycling difficulties, McDaniels calls them "black plastic," but they actually are brightly colored.
And that's where XSProject comes in, paying residents of the dump for what they collect and transforming that trash into consumer goods such as totes, zippered pouches, luggage tags and baskets.
"They come in and they are all dirty and filthy and they are probably in some sort of sack," McDaniels said about the pouches. "We put them on a scale and weigh them. That's how we determine how much are going to pay the trash picker."
From there, workers at XSProject sort, sanitize and dry the pouches before they are ultimately turned into new products by a team of sewers who live at the organization's workshop and get paid by the piece.
All along the way, the nonprofit group is working to make lives better, from the trash pickers and their children, to the employees who prepare the pouches to the people who make the finished goods.
"I can tell you that we've recovered about 90,000 pounds of plastic waste from the waste stream in Jakarta since 2007, and we've made more than 100,000 products from it," said McDaniels, who lives in the Dallas area and travels to Indonesia.
Part of her job in the United States is to drum up interest, financial support and sales for the group. And that's why she was set up with a booth at the recent Plastics Recycling 2017 conference in New Orleans. About a third of the group's revenue comes from sales. Popular totes are sold under the Mari Pergi name, which means "let's go" in the Bahasa Indonesia language. They range in price from $15 to $30, and are available through the group's website along with other products.
XSProject currently employs 13 people directly, has eight people working as sewers and buys pouches from more a little more than 100 families at the dump. About 185 children are receiving an education, including two who will graduate this year and attend junior college.
The nonprofit group will buy pouches from people who do not have their children enrolled the school, but probably only once. The group wants to convince people to allow their children to attend school and uses the opportunity to make money by selling used pouches as a way of attracting students.
"I lived in Indonesia for many years," McDaniels said. "After seeing the poverty over there, I decided that when I retired I wanted to do something,"
Her view on the world started to change when she would leave for work every morning while living in Indonesia.
"I just didn't like what I saw. The very simple story was when I lived in Jakarta, there was a guy who picked through my garbage can every single morning," she explained. "And I would go out of my driveway to go to work and I would see him. And for the first year, I thought he was looking for food.
"I would tell my driver, tell him to go around the side of the house and the cook would give him something to eat. But the trash pickers are invisible in Indonesia. My driver, who spoke really good English, suddenly didn't speak any English at all. He didn't want to talk about it. He didn't want to know about it. And it wasn't until I started talking to people that I realized that all he was doing was looking for things he could sell to feed his family," she said.
McDaniels, who also has done anti-poverty work in Cambodia, joined up with XSProject in 2010 and works with General Manager Retno Hapsari, who took over the operation in 2007 from founder Ann Wizer.
While McDaniels now does much of the work for XSProject Indonesia from afar these days, Hapsari is on the ground in Jakarta and working closely with the trash pickers, employees and children to help improve their lives.
"The first time you go, it is absolutely overwhelming, and the sites and the smells stay with you for a long time and you think about it. And once you've seen it yourself, then you can't look away. You have to be a part of fixing that," she said.