The People Who Turned a Filipino Town from Waste Guzzler to Recycling Pioneer

Froilan Grate, president of charity Madre Tierra, worked closely with San Fernando’s government on a ‘zero-waste’ approach to litter and recycling.

28.06.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash
Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

It’s often the places that would benefit most from a cleaner environment in which it’s most difficult to make change. So it goes with the Philippines, often considered one of the biggest ocean polluters in the world—a place in which 14 million tonnes of waste was created in 2016, with less than a third actually recycled.

San Fernando was a town that fit completely within this image. In 2012, just 12% of the waste was being recycled. Regina Rodriguez, the town’s environmental official, told La Nación that littering was so common that many thought it would be “impossible” to make change.

“We’re not just fighting against waste. We’re fighting against a mentality and a culture,” she added.

Nevertheless, after a six-year programme of educational campaigns, cleanup initiatives, and dogged persistence, the town turned this reputation on its head—managing to compost or recycle 80% of its waste.

The town’s ambitious ‘zero waste’ policy has seen the creation of recycling points in local neighbourhoods and schools; more than 100 installations of waste treatment have been set up across the town, which is far above what is demanded by the law. The city also supported short-term plans, such as cleaning through the streets, to ensure that the programme would stay in people’s minds.

The programme comes at a time of change for the Philippines. Former President Benigno Aquino III formally designated January as Zero-Waste Month. As detailed in the blog ecowarriorprincess.net, numerous zero-waste initiatives have popped up across the country—including the opening of a zero-waste grocery store in Cebu; a series of ‘trash for cash’ programmes at shopping centres; and initiatives to turn glass and plastic into ‘eco-bricks’ for use in construction in the town of Orani.

Central to San Fernando’s success was a collaboration with the charity Madre Tierra (Mother Earth), run by Froilan Grate. He told La Nación that success on recycling initiatives comes from a combination of local government support, strict bans on particularly pollutant materials, and lots of work encouraging local people to see the benefits of such campaigns. “Everyone, from the mayor to state works, has to want to do it. It’s also important to bring the neighbours on board. You have to empower people to participate.”

He also stressed the importance of arguing for long-term benefits: San Fernando is reportedly saving 25 times more per year than its initial investment in the programme, which was equivalent to around $38,000.

For Rodriguez, encouraging people to change how they approach rubbish in their own homes is obviously a slow and frustrating process, but one that’s entirely necessary to change people’s mentality and traditions. Houses in the town currently separate waste into three forms: biodegradable, recyclable and residual, with some even using personal composters.

“[Waste] is a difficult problem to resolve,” Grate added. “But the San Fernando case shows that there’s something that you can do at a local level, and it is possible to do it.”

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