I have committed the past 15 years of my life to development and humanitarian work.
What I have learned and understood is this.
Across the Philippines, abject poverty speaks in varying dialects, resides in countless zip codes, metastasizes in human-induced and natural disasters, and reinforces itself like a fresh wound transcending generations. Extreme poverty is painful. If left unaddressed, it can choose to be hurtful, out of desperation. But, poverty can also be a source of strength. Of hope.
However, for the rest of the world which is deprived of poverty, its realities can be an abrasive irony – pervasive and invisible at the same time.
I began working with The Plastic Bank in May this year. The Plastic Bank, a global social enterprise which fosters a circular ecosystem committed towards reducing ocean plastic and poverty, started its work in the Philippines in November 2016.
The Plastic Bank closely works with the sector which serves as the base of the plastic recycling pyramid – the informal waste collectors across the world – pervasive but invisible.
The informal waste collecting sector, estimated at around 2% of the urban population, is unlike any other sector I have closely worked with. Their tenacity, self-reliance, grit, self-navigated knowledge on plastic recycling and contribution to the plastic recycling industry is unparalleled. The sector includes itinerant individual waste collectors who walk for hours collecting recyclables such as plastics. Because of the nature and rigorous demands of their work, they may be shunned or misconstrued for their appearance. A distinct sub-sector is composed of garbage collection truck contractors or employees who have direct access to garbage, immediately segregating recyclables and selling these for additional income. And the least but most crucial in reducing ocean plastic, the last mile collectors who rummage through the loads of garbage before these become perpetually embedded and disposed at the landfill – exceeding our finite lifetimes.
I spoke with Nanay Ester one morning. In her 60s, Nanay Ester is the president of 176 informal waste collectors in Balatas, Naga City. She proudly shares to me that after hours of working at the landfill, she sorted and sold recyclables worth 170Php (3.20USD) that day. The dedication required of an informal waste collector is intense. As I sorted through burgeoning sacks of plastics, I came across dirt in various forms – not for the faint of heart. There are approximately more than 35 diseases identified among the informal waste collecting communities. The physical rigors of the work is not for the weak backbone – related to the anecdote that sore back is one of the persistent ailments of informal waste collectors across the globe.
Nanay Ester tells me that the informal waste collectors’ daily lives are a daily narrative of hand-to-mouth existence. She notes this with pride, not regretfully, noting that this stark reality and limitation is what motivates them to return to the landfill the following day – searching for recyclables, selling to junkshops, and putting food on the table. Nanay Ester is all too familiar with the daily cycle as she has been doing so in the past four decades.
In spite of the constraints within their sector and being subjected to fluctuant and unstable prices of collected recyclables, collectively, they help institutions save 20% or more which is otherwise needed to spend on waste management in developing countries. Imagine, if out of hopelessness and exhaustion, all informal waste collectors decide to stop working one day. The environmental ramifications would be unforgettable.
In the status quo, industries encourage middlemen or waste dealers to assure adequate volume and supply. The economic consequences for waste dealers and industries would be tangible if informal waste collectors decide to halt. This would never happen and has never happened in the past 40 years of Nanay Ester's life. This is how she survives. This is how the rest of the 2% and the generations before them survive.
I sat beside Manong Danny who is also in his 60s. He took a break from collecting empty PET bottles in Manila. He is ailing, speaks without clarity but manages to share to me that his wooden cart was stolen, and proudly notes that he chooses to walk two hours more with 30 kilograms of recyclable plastics on his back to reach the junkshop which sells an extra 5Php (.094 USD) per kilo. Informal plastic collectors like Manong Danny do not beg. They are persistent. Independent. Unknowingly and maybe unintentionally, they help prevent plastics from reaching bodies of water, estuaries, and then, oceans. A college student approaches Manong Danny and hands him a used PET bottle. He then tells me, “see, some people are emphatic towards me, they give their bottles to me.” He does not use the term “throw away.” Manong Danny starts his day at noon and ends in the wee hours of the morning. He hopes to gather 5 kilograms of plastic bottles that day potentially amounting to less than 50Php (.94USD).
The Philippines and Indonesia are two of the countries with the highest contributions to ocean plastics. Among many other commonalities, a striking similarity is the prominence of multi-layer packaging or sachets and laminates. I met Juliet one Sunday morning, a barangay (village) official in Pandacan, Manila. She tells me that at her age, she did not expect to have another child, currently a toddler. She shares her concern about the potentially plastic-filled future environment of her son. Along with other volunteers, Juliet collects, segregates, and creates Ecobricks every 4thSunday at the Pandacan Ministry of Ecology. She brought me to her home, a stone’s throw away from railway tracks. I immediately noticed the sachets and laminates washed and dried, poking outside the uneven sticks of her wooden gate. Juliet is passionately concerned about the sachets asking me if I can find a definite option to make sure that aside from Ecobricking, the sachets they collect will not end up in the landfill. Since that day, I have looked at sachets and laminates in a different way. She introduces me to a streetsweeper who shows me bags filled with segregated sachets – a deviant act for the environment. Streetsweepers earn 2100Php (39USD) as a quarterly honorarium. Juliet and the streetsweepers belong to an urban poor community which cleans and dries sachets out of genuine concern. Indeed, it is not one’s abilities that count, it is one’s choices.
The Plastic Bank works towards a circular ecosystem of ethically recovered plastic recyclables. Informal waste collectors earning a premium price for each kilogram. Plastic collectors recognized and valued for their contribution to the environment. The Plastic Bank also explores ways to catalyze a market value for plastics which are not recyclable –residuals such as sachets and laminates.
One Friday afternoon, I listened to the aspirations of the elected officers of the 176-strong informal waste collectors’ association in Balatas, Naga City. I shared to them how the Plastic Bank intends to integrate them to a higher level in the value chain, directly selling recovered recyclable plastics to the local industry.
The audience spans generations, senior citizens who have been collecting recyclables for four decades; mothers and fathers; and daughters and sons. While the officers conveyed enthusiasm, the response from the members was neutral. I spent a good number of years teaching communication theories in the university. This I know: there are three reasons why a message does not come across. The most powerful being, 'psychological noise.'
The message that informal waste collectors can powerfully disrupt the system – that their social conditions can be sustainably better, that their children can live healthier and more productive lives, that they can be economically viable like the junkshops as the Plastic Bank will support them to directly sell high value recycled plastics to processors and manufacturers, and that they are valuable to the growing call to reduce ocean plastic – all seem too hopeful and dreamy.
This, I understand. The sector of informal waste collectors has been existing for decades and yet, although a crucial part of the supply chain, the vicious cycle of extreme poverty has never been so visible as it is within their sector.
The message of empowerment needs to be re-conveyed. More importantly, the message has to become real.
The Plastic Bank is committed to making these messages life-changing. We continually develop economic systems that stop ocean plastic. We foster dialogue and partnerships to create a national, circular economy for plastic that prevents ocean pollution and alleviates extreme poverty. In the Philippines, we are working with companies such as Eat Natural, a snacks and cereals brand, which has made a commitment to ‘plastic neutrality.’ Eat Natural aims to offset its annual plastic footprint by financing the collection of 115 tonnes of ocean plastic in the Philippines.
We are working with local governments who recognize the value of the sector such as the local government of Naga, who in spite of competing needs and priorities, have considered the sector as a valuable force.
We aspire that the sector develops a good relationship with receiving industries and finds itself as a force to be reckoned with within the formal system. We collaborate with plastic manufacturing companies like Manly Plastics, Inc. and processing companies to lend technical expertise and foster closed loop programs. Through them, we help improve linkages along the materials and value chain interface. We are strengthened by volunteers who bolster our community organizing work.
Most importantly, we work hand-in-hand with informal waste collector associations such as Balatas Kadamay in Naga City, who for generations have supported their families by sorting and collecting recyclables while reducing the percentage of recyclables disposed in the landfill.
There is a lot to be done. We cannot do everything, but we can do something.