Clara Blakelock just finished a 6-month CIDA / IYIP internship in San Fernando, Philippines. Her work focused on waste management. Thanks for the great article, Clara!
I think the reason that I’ve always focused my environmental work and education on waste management, is because I’m basically a literal person and I like things I can see, touch, and understand. Waste management just seemed to me like an easy way to start engaging people on environmental issues, because we all deal with garbage on a daily basis. Unlike things like decreasing biodiversity, climate change, or air and water pollution, garbage is something you can point to and say “This is a problem that we need to solve” [sometimes if those other problems get bad enough, you can point them out, but it’s better to avoid getting to that point].
Even so, people still often have a tendency to ignore where their garbage goes once it is collected. In Canada, we’re lucky that we have relatively safe disposal techniques, and our garbage doesn’t usually have a direct effect on human health, buried in sanitary landfills away from where people live. Recycling is quite well-established, although it works a bit backwards – after collecting and sorting the supposedly valuable waste, it is often hard to find buyers for the materials and the program never makes collection costs back.
Garbage and recycling are quite different in the Philippines. I really had no idea what to expect before I came here. One thing I learned is that recycling actually works somewhat better here – there actually is a market for recycled materials, and people willingly separate out their paper, bottles and cans to sell to junk shops or waste buyers. The municipality doesn’t have to manage recycling collection at all. Of course, there is the added issue that the reason it works well is because people working in the informal waste sector make very little money and work in unsafe conditions.
One similarity between the recycling systems in the two places is that most people don’t have any idea what happens to their recyclable materials once they leave their possession.
I recently had the opportunity to visit a junk shop (where recyclable materials are collected, packaged, and resold) that was closing down. It’s easy to think of recycling as a clean, easy, process, but seeing the waste left over at this place made it clear that this was anything but true.
The first issue this experience brought to light for me was the perception versus the reality of recycling. People often have a tendency to think that once waste is segregated at the source, that’s the end of the story –waste that gets to a recycler will be repurposed in a safe and effective way. The reality is that even segregated waste is a challenge to deal with –glass gets broken, containers are dirty, labels need to be removed, and some materials don’t have a market. Source segregation is a huge first step (having helped in segregating one cubic meter of unsorted waste in another part of my job, I have firsthand knowledge of why it’s better to pre-segregate), but it’s important that waste laws also focus on the practices of recyclers.
The second issue was the matter of safe disposal of hazardous waste. San Fernando is one of only a few cities in the Philippines to actually have a sanitary landfill, so it is lucky in that regard to have a safe disposal method for regular household and commercial waste. However, large amounts of broken glass (“sharps”) cannot go in the landfill as they may break the liner. So the question is, what was the owner of the junk shop to do with that glass? Burying it on the property isn’t a great solution, but neither would be dumping it illegally somewhere else, which might have been the only other option, if it couldn’t be sold.
Mostly seeing this kind of waste highlighted for me the importance of emphasizing waste reduction as the top element in the waste hierarchy. Recycling is important and does help reduce waste going to landfill, but it is far from a harmless, clean process, and it’s always better to avoid waste in the first place.