Let’s Talk Trash

We have a trash problem in my municipality. In fact, the Philippines has a trash problem in general, as 3rd highest global producer of plastic waste into the world’s oceans (behind China and Indonesia). Like most problems of this scale, there is not an easy solution or group of people to blame. It’s a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle.

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First, there’s a huge production of residual waste- waste that can be neither recycled nor composted- things like plastic shopping bags, candy wrappers, styrofoam containers, and single-use sachets. The single-use sachets are everywhere! Everything from laundry detergent, to shampoo, coffee, and MSG seasoning packets comes from these evil little guys. They are often preferred to buying in larger quantities because they’re cheap (trash is often the worst in the most impoverished areas). But, bahala na! Sachets and other residual waste wouldn’t be such a problem but…

Waste disposal is difficult. According RA 9003, the republic act of the Philippines dealing with solid waste management, it is the responsibility of the municipality to deal with their residual trash. However, dealing with anything biodegradable or recyclable falls on the shoulders of the barangays (the smallest unit of government).

In a perfect world, individual households would segregate their trash into recyclable, biodegradable and residual. Then, the barangay would collect the segregated waste- processing the biodegradable waste into fertilizer and selling the recyclables to junk shops. Next, the municipal (next level of government) would coordinate the pick up of the left over residuals and send it to a dumpsite.

There are a few problems with this. People don’t often segregate. (We’ll get back to this). But, even if they did, municipalities and especially barangays rarely have the necessary equipment to pick up trash, or, if they did, they wouldn’t be able to make it down the narrow paths to densely populated housing common in rural areas. Then, if somehow all of the trash could be collected, it’s rare they have the capacity to store and process it properly.

So, without a mechanism to pick up trash, people don’t bother to segregate. And, why should they? But, they have to do something. So, they bury, burn and dump. Trash dusts the streets like tumbleweed then makes its way to the streams and ocean. Now, with all the trash ever present, people adjust; they get used to it. So, what’s another piece of litter on top?

Burning is an issue of its own. Technically, again according to RA 9003, it’s illegal. Still, it’s rampant, over 80 percent of households in my town admitted to burning their garbage regularly. And again, it’s tough to blame many of them with so much trash and nowhere to put it. Also, are mosquitoes a problem? (Hint: Always.) Burn some plastic! They’ll be gone in a heartbeat!  However, the practice is extremely harmful, not only to the environment but to people’s health.

I have always had an environmental soft spot. Overuse of plastic has been a concern of mine since childhood. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! and all that. But, I wasn’t an extremist. I didn’t stress about candy wrappers and double bagging groceries (even if I did have a set of reusable bags I perpetually forgot in my trunk).

Now, I see my privilege, one I shared most all Americans. Here in the Philippines, the waste produced doesn’t just disappear. But, it doesn’t actually disappear in the US either. A candy wrapper takes hundreds of years to break down no matter where its goodness was consumed.

Although the problem of trash that doesn’t go away is mostly accompanied by environmental, health, and economic problems- it also comes with awareness and creative solutions. Many people have built their livelihoods literally out of trash and many more will continue to do so as the country continues on this uphill battle.

So, what does all this have to do with my service? I’m a coastal resource management volunteer. I should be snorkeling in our coral reefs, hanging out with fisherman! Solid waste management isn’t even an issue covered by office.

Obviously, it still has everything to do with my service. Improper solid waste management, even far from the coast, has an effect on our shorelines and fisherfolk. However, since it isn’t part of the duties of the office of municipal agriculture, I’ve had to venture a bit further away from the comfort of my desk.

Recently, I’ve been working more with our recently-appointed MENRO (Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Officer). She has stepped into a huge job, tasked with a lot more than just dealing with solid waste management, and she’s asked my help.

In the past week, I’ve met with barangay captains (like small-town mayors), teachers, students, parents, and participants of government programs to talk trash. As you might expect, sometimes the conversations are bleak and difficult. (What is a busy mother supposed to do with diapers piling up and no one to collect them? How can you stop a neighbor whose garbage spills into your yard?) And there are some blame games. (It’s the students littering!  It’s the fault of the government for not collecting! The trash on the beach comes from boats and other municipalities…) Fortunately, there’s also a lot good from these talks. People want a solution. They show they’re willing to work, make sacrifices, and pass along knowledge to their communities.

And though change is slow, I’m already seeing progress!  Last month, I bought two extra buckets for my office so we could practice proper segregation. Since then, I’ve seen our carefully sorted trash, remixed again and again upon collection. But, not today! For the first day the trash outside of my municipal building was properly segregated!

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Next week, I’ll be heading back to the high school where I met with 30+ awesome high school students who are willing to work with me to re-form an environmental club on campus. Teachers have agreed to assist in the construction of an MRF (material recovery facility, used to larger scale trash segregation). And, we’re looking into applying for grants to assist in future projects.

Also, working within the local government unit I have the opportunity to work on this issue at multiple levels, even the legal level in helping to update the municipality’s solid waste management ordinance.

That’s enough for now. As always, feel free to comment with questions and thanks for reading!

Cara

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