September 15th, 2017
by Amy Slack
You can’t separate the issue of marine litter from waste management. For those who work in waste, this might go without saying, but it is a truth that has really hit home with me over the last six weeks away from Eunomia, working in the Philippines.
With the help of staff and volunteers (thanks guys!) at Marine Conservation Philippines, I have been regularly cleaning beaches – up to three times a week – around the Zambonguita areas of Negros. Whilst there is some satisfaction in knowing that we are stopping waste from entering or going back into the marine environment, my heart sinks with each bit of trash we pick up.
First, I am shocked by the apparent disregard people have for waste. In Europe, dropping litter anywhere has become pretty taboo. Not so here: people just consume and discard items right out in the open in front of everyone, and no one seems to care. As a result, trash is everywhere: the beaches, the roads, the fields… everywhere.
Secondly, not much of what we pick up is actually recyclable. Unsurprisingly, most of what we find on beaches is single-use plastic packaging, such as bags, sachets, and food and sweet wrappers – water is even drunk out of plastic bags, so they’re a major component of what we pick up. We separate out what little can be recycled, but I can hardly bear to see what happens to the rest: the local practice is just to burn it! If you take a walk in any village, town, or city in the Philippines in the evening, the air is filled with smoke from small piles of burning plastic. To me, this is shocking. As we try to solve a litter problem, I worry that this means contributing to air quality issues.
So why is this trash not disposed of properly? Once within a waste management system, waste is much less likely to leak into the environment and marine ecosystems. If you read my last blog, you’ll know that the Philippines actually has some pretty good legislation in place – including a Clean Air Act (Republic Act 8749) that prohibits incineration and burning of waste.
The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 (Republic Act 9003) devolves responsibility for waste collection down to local level and requires segregated collection of waste. There is a two tier system that echoes the structure of some of English local government: local districts (called ‘barangays’) are responsible for recyclable and biodegradable waste, whilst municipalities are responsible for disposal of residual waste.
Good though the legislation is, there is a problem with implementation and enforcement. There is little money to spend, and local politicians and mayors have their own priorities. In Negros, the result is little or no formal waste collection. The only way people see to get rid of their trash is to just discard it into the environment or burn it.
So, how can waste management systems be put in place to start tackling some of these issues? It’s easy to look to the West as a model for solutions – new policies, perhaps, or new technologies. Some places in the Philippines are investing in compactor trucks and sorting equipment to improve collections, but the expense is beyond the means of many municipalities and barangays, especially where waste management is low on the agenda. In any case, it is not clear that this type of investment addresses the underlying problem.
The question that I find myself asking is: what approach to waste management is fit for purpose and sustainable for societies like the Philippines? In the UK and Europe, changes in waste management have largely come from the top down – EU and domestic legislation (such as the Landfill Directive) has led to measures that have helped make waste management safe and increasingly driven material up the waste hierarchy. But perhaps here, a bottom up approach is more appropriate.
A firm foundation
The Philippines has a substantial informal waste sector that is ultimately responsible for most of the country’s recycling. I’m sure you will have seen pictures of men, women and children in appalling conditions eking out a miniscule living from recyclable materials they find in dump sites. Most sell the material they glean to small local ‘junk shops’, which then trade them on up the chain until they reach a reprocessor. But can this sector become the engine to drive recycling and prevention whilst also improving waste pickers’ working environment and health?
This week I had the pleasure of meeting Mother Earth Foundation chairperson, Sonia Mendoza, and visiting Fort Bonifacio materials recovery facility (MRF), one of the foundation’s model MRF’s in Manila. My idea of a MRF was a big facility full of sorting lines, separating machinery and mechanical balers, but this site was something completely different. It is small, utilising a narrow stretch of land no more than 100m long and 10m wide along the side of a road. The space was previously used as a bit of a dumping ground but is now tidy, clean and full of plants grown in compost made onsite from biodegradable household waste. They employ twelve waste collectors, collectively responsible for collecting waste from around 1,000 households. Pushing small handbarrows from door to door, these former waste pickers earn a regular wage from the municipality of around 8,000 Philippines Pesos (PHP) ($160) per annum, a big step up from the 3,000 PHP ($60) or so they made in their previous jobs.
Furthermore, they are incentivised to collect and separate as much recyclable material as possible as they keep the additional income from the material they sell to the junkshops. As they do not collect incorrectly segregated waste, they take responsibility for educating the community about proper waste segregation. And importantly, they no longer have to scavenge through mountains of waste at the dumpsite and so have a much healthier working environment.
These MRF sites are small, simple, inexpensive to set up and effective. Further, they offer alternative livelihood initiatives to women who manage the site, who make products such as bags, purses and phone covers from some of the unrecyclable material and sell compost and plants. By collecting waste, the sites also create savings for the municipality. Taking waste out of the residual waste stream and having a central collection point has reduced the number of trucks needed to collect residual waste from four to one – a saving of PHP 10,000 per day, part of which is being re-invested in waste services.
So the use of small, simple, community-orientated processes that focus on people rather than machinery to drive waste up the hierarchy is perhaps the more appropriate model in emerging markets. But there is still a long way to go in the Philippines, and better waste management is only one piece of the jigsaw. To be truly ‘zero waste’, consumption patterns must also be addressed.
Over coming months, as well as seeking to improve local waste management practices with the local municipality, I will be thinking more about how producer responsibility and education around waste prevention, which I see as the top and most urgent priority, might work in the Philippines and be implemented locally. Preventing waste, especially the non-recyclable plastic packaging, plastic bags and single-use products, is critical. The Philippines needs mechanisms that help industry and the public to take responsibility for their waste if it is to stem the flow of trash into its marine and land environments.