Nothing left to waste in the Philippines


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The waste sector spans from collection, sorting, separation, recycling, handling of residuals and safe, final disposal. The elements of an efficient and effective waste management system are multifaceted and its operations are complex. While many perceive the entire process as a ‘dirty’ business, it requires a high level of professionalism and sophistication to run a well-organized waste management scheme. It is not a surprise that a strong informal sector has evolved to cater to the unmet waste disposal needs of communities, industries and other waste generators.

It is estimated that over a hundred thousand people in the Philippines work in the informal waste sector. Many of these belong to vulnerable, marginalized groups - waste pickers in open dumpsites and other dumping grounds and wandering trash collectors, haulers and buyers on-foot or using wooden carts and bicycles.

They are among the poorest of the poor in developing countries who include the uneducated, unskilled, elderly, disabled, women, children and migrants who have limited livelihood opportunities and unstable incomes. They lead a hand-to-mouth existence, contending with pay-dirt earnings and destitute working conditions.

Their marginalization is perpetuated by the lack of recognition by the formal waste management system and the socio-economic barriers they face in accessing more formal or profitable livelihood opportunities.

One way of making their contribution recognized by society is to promote their role and support to the waste sector. The World Bank, through the Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF), is helping them organize themselves to improve their livelihoods and social inclusion through income generating opportunities and integration into the evolving solid waste management sector.

A long-standing player is the Payatas Alliance Recycling Exchange (PARE) Multipurpose Cooperative, composed of informal waste recyclers who earn their living by segregating and recycling wastes so that only residuals enter the Payatas Sanitary Landfill in Quezon City. Payatas used to be the Philippines largest open dumpsite and is now home to a 1MW power plant that converts the landfill gas into electricity.

PARE is assisted by the JSDF project (docx) with the help of the Solid Waste Management Association of the Philippines, by strengthening the capacity of their cooperative members to set up their own microenterprises. PARE took center stage during the April 25, 2014 Earth Day Jam celebration in Manila to demonstrate how to do waste segregation at home.

The event also gave them the opportunity to talk about waste management in front of thousands of music- and nature lovers who came to enjoy live music and listen to talks on the environment while pledging their support to Mother Earth.

Bonifacio Astaquita, a father of 10 from Bacolod in the Visayas, is among the project beneficiaries. Waste picking has been his main source of income for 10 years.

After attending the Urban Container gardening training administered by the project, he harvests at least 10 kilograms of organic vegetables a week which he sells to his community, as it is more than enough for his family’s consumption.

The country has been grappling with the perennial threat of a garbage crisis and awareness raising is not enough. Given this enormous challenge, we need to help formalize our ailing and fragmented solid waste sector and bring in as many players as possible to strengthen it.

We need to recognize the contribution of the informal waste sector and professionalize their ranks as they have the capacity, stamina and perseverance to advance and expand our waste management systems. By working together to save ourselves from drowning under our own trash, we are also saving the lives of people working in the informal waste sector.

As the Philippines celebrates Clean Up Month in September, let us find ways to get to know more about proper waste management and find practical ways and means in applying it in our own lives. I would love to hear your experience or thoughts on this.



Maya Villaluz

Senior Environment Operations Officer

Join the Conversation

Perla Manapol
September 23, 2014

Thank you so much for this informative, enlightening write-up. Whenever I am in the Philippines (to carry out my pro-bono work on anti-deforestation and "waste-to-energy" projects) I stay at a friend's home somewhere in Manila. Outside her compound is where, in my opinion, the worst aspects of Filipino life are in full swing: streets clogged with smoke-belching vehicles; pedestrians having to walk on the streets (and risking their lives) because the sidewalks are occupied by vendors and eateries(most of whom are unlicensed), beggars, the homeless, etc. And, of course, tons of garbage that clog the waterways - triggering floods after even half an hour of rain. Yes, there is daily garbage collection, but within minutes after the trucks leave, garbage is once again thrown all over the place. I believe that along with recycling and re-use, people have to be taught how to dispose of their garbage properly. After all, what good is waste management when flooded streets continue to wreak havoc on humanity?

Maya Villaluz
September 23, 2014

Dear Perla: Thanks a lot for sharing with us your sharp observations and selfless contribution to make our country a better place for everyone. Yes indeed, we are the main generators of the garbage that wreak havoc to our environment and our society. I hope more concerned people like you make a stand and take action to solve this menace that is a major stumbling block to the sustainable development of the Philippines.
May your tribe increase!
cheers, Maya 

Perla Manapol
September 24, 2014

Dear Maya,
Thanks for your quick response. And now, for yet another environmental issue dear to my heart, i.e., the "love affair" everyone seems to have with TREE-PLANTING. To me, this is yet another one of those "mis-focused" environmental issues. Wouldn't our world be a better place to live in if we, instead, just stopped cutting trees so that there would no longer be a need to replant them? After all, most studies show that a newly-planted tree takes about 20 years' growth before it can provide its benefits to mankind and the environment. (Imagine the harmful effects humankind and Mother Nature have to go through in those 20 years!)In addition, as one study shows, "the fast-growing trees draw moisture from the soil, causing many trees to die in water-stressed regions with low annual precipitation." The bottom line: DON'T CUT TREES SO THAT THERE WOULD BE NO NEED TO RE-PLANT THEM!

Mark T
May 23, 2019

Trees are cut by local people for a practical rason -- burning wood as fuel for cooking, larger trees for construction or in general to clear more land for farming or building houses. Wood is the cheapest fuel available and if you live in the countryside it's free. The solution would get people to use efficient stoves (internet searches would say rocket stoves) that use less wood. Or perhaps use instead a waste product like rice hulls which work but people find cumbersome. The other two uses of wood would need the government intervention against illegal logging and general deforestation.

Maya Villaluz
May 23, 2019

Dear Perla - I understand your sentiment. I too prefer that trees are not cut as they are one of the most beautiful creations of God. They bring us a lot of ecosystem services, among them are habitats for plants and animals, CO2 capture, natural water reservoirs and erosion control. Trees also die and we need to re-plant for regeneration. We definitely condone illegal tree cutting and it would be good if we can find environment-friendly timber substitutes for fuel and construction materials.
Thanks for your insights. 

May 23, 2019

Hi Mark - I totally agree that wood should be left to waste and should be reused. Construction debris account for around 36% of wastes in dumpsites and least 6% is wood waste which is untapped fuel. While efficient wood stoves should be a viable solution, indoor air pollution can cause health risks if the cooking area is not properly ventilated. And of course, cutting trees to produce charcoal has been rampant in the countryside which put in danger even young trees that should be left alone to mature.
Great that you are interested in looking for clean energy from renewable sources.

October 09, 2014

Informative piece. Agreeable that they should be given ample recognition and professionalizing them is a big boost in their well-being. But with the long standing issue of their poverty, why has it not yet been addressed for so long? Probably, we could take a look at the "dynamics" between the players in the waste management system. In my mind lies the question, "Is there a big business behind?"
On the other hand, I am figuring out how to help this small family who transforms by-product/waste materials from factories into decent lighting products as a livelihood. What they do not yet realize is that they trim down the amount of waste to be delivered to in the pits, but instead transform them into reusable products. Maybe this could also be a part of the initiative.

October 27, 2014

Thanks, Maya, for your insightful comments. I, too have been concerned about the need for there to be an 'informal waste sector' and in admiration of those who succeed in scratching a living within it. A couple of thoughts come to mind.
Can we step back a little and envisage how we would like the system to be - from top to bottom - starting with segregation at source, proper collection, re-use, recycling, conversion to energy etc. Can it only happen in more developed countries? What are the motivations to get it right and also the constraining influences?
Having worked on the fringes of this topic for a while (and as a foreign resident who has to avoid kicking up too much dust!) I have observed that the controlling mindset which ensures that waste disposal usually starts with land-fill, as against proper processing, is at least in part due to the apparent fact that the majority of land-fill sites are owned directly or indirectly by politicians who charge a significant dumping fee per ton.
What would be the ideal arrangements for 'Philippines Inc' to achieve best results for its population as a whole?

Maya Villaluz
November 04, 2014

Hi Neil, many thanks for your wise thoughts. I absolutely agree with your points. Let me answer you one by one -
point no. 1 - top to bottom approach in waste management
Using the waste management hierarchy - treatment and disposal is the least preferred, and going up the ladder is energy recovery then recycling and composting and source reduction and reuse as the highest. Capturing the waste streams from the source, starting at segregation to proper collection and management and returning our used materials (rather than waste as they still contain essential physical and chemical properties) back to our economy or natural ecosystem should be the primary objective of any waste management system.
Definitely, a good waste management system, like any well-oiled and maintained engine, can be done in and by any country. I can not think of a stronger motivation that is attractive to the uninitiated except money. BUT, more than the economic returns, contributing to the improvement of our waste management system will bring us greater benefits for us as private individuals, members of local communities and citizens of the world is the preservation of our lives and our planet. There are a number of ills (physical and social) that uncollected garbage, poor disposal and no treatment bring. Due to movement of contaminants and pollution in the atmosphere and in the groundwater that leak from these discarded materials, we get exposed to health hazards that cause cancer, lung ailments, skin diseases, diarrhea, etc. since these hazardous materials get transported to distant plances even if the dumpsite is 10 kilometers or so away.        
This project has conducted a value chain analysis of the various natural or processed materials collected from dumpsites and have transformed them into high quality, consumer products (eg., export quality slippers, beaded shirts and gowns, certified vermicompost and organic veggies) that are comparable with their kind in the market. This has boosted the self-esteem of the waste pickers as individuals and as organized groups and made them more confident in exploring livelihood opportunities other than waste picking. As we discovered, given their marginalized backgrounds, the important value that they seem to have lost in the process of being exposed to waste picking day in and day out is their self-worth.
point no. 2 - ideal arrangement to keep the system apolitical and verifiable
To make the waste management system effective, efficient and fair, we need to ensure that transparency, civil society consultation and participation, accountability, access to information mechanisms and processes are in place to keep the system robust and sustainable. Also, the problems we encountered are site- and culture-specific, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That is why we need to keep the local communities, NGOs, academe and private sector equally involved in the decision-making and implementation process.
Thanks again for your interest in the topic.