Managing pandemic trash

Text by Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News; Photos and additional reporting by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News; Infographics by Pamela Ramos

In pandemic garbage scourge, these cities shine in waste management

Volunteer Michelle Vasquez

Volunteer Michelle Vasquez uses her pedicab to fetch household trash in Barangay Tanza II in Navotas City on September 03, 2021. The task requires her to make trips through neighborhoods and pick up their trash, as residents also do their part in proper waste disposal. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA— As the COVID-19 pandemic lingered into its second year, the Philippines saw yet another outbreak. And unlike the invisible virus, the long-standing enemy is clearly seen, so glaring yet still ignored by many: trash.

The onset of the health crisis has seen an abrupt rise in the country’s garbage output, with health protocols wrought by the pandemic triggering greater use of disposables, including plastic packaging in food and online shopping deliveries, and what are considered essential non-biodegradable items such as personal protective equipment (PPE), medical-grade face masks, face shields and gloves.

The country’s waste output nearly quadrupled over the period of July to December in 2020 to 362,000 metric tons, from 88,000 metric tons in the same period in 2019 prior to the virus outbreak, according to data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

In August, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu called on local government units (LGUs) to comply with legally-mandated waste disposal methods, primarily at-source segregation, after getting reports of uncollected trash and improperly disposed garbage in some parts of the country.

But in the midst of unwieldy waste management in many localities, some cities are showing it can be done. That even in a pandemic, the “zero waste” effort is doable, even while authorities are busy with COVID-related concerns, from quarantine enforcement and patient isolation to vaccinations, aid distribution and granular lockdowns.

The likes of San Fernando City in Pampanga and Navotas in northern Metro Manila have managed to maintain their waste management programs, keeping waste segregation and materials recovery robust despite the pandemic’s multiplier effect on trash volume and risks and movement challenges it poses.

San Fernando City: Environment first

San Fernando City Mayor Edwin Santiago

Photo from the San Fernando City government official website

This city north of Manila, acclaimed for the giant parol or Christmas lantern, is renowned for one other achievement: its globally recognized waste management program.

Behind the sustained effort towards zero waste is San Fernando City Mayor Edwin Santiago, who has made the environment the city’s priority in terms of development programs. He came in the picture in 2013, two years after the city partnered with environment group Mother Earth Foundation, a member of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) which promotes zero waste solutions around the world.

By now deeply entrenched, the city’s waste management program has proved useful for the city when the pandemic struck, as its systems are already in place, and residents have made it part of their daily life to segregate trash. In the city, the zero-waste mindset has become a way of life.

“If you cannot manage your garbage, ang environment ang tatamaan (your environment will be affected),” said Santiago of the core of the city’s approach to waste management.

He said this is one of the lessons of COVID-19: that humans should take care of the environment more so that a deadly and highly infectious disease won’t be able to thrive.

“One thing iniiiling ng COVID, ayaw niya ng too much development, siksikan. One lesson na tinuturo ni COVID, sabi niya ‘mahalin nyo ang environment’,” said Santiago, citing how pandemic lockdowns and the halt in transport in the early days of the pandemic had led to clearer skies and cleaner oceans.

(One thing that COVID doesn't like is too much development, crowding. One lesson that COVID teaches, it's telling you to love the environment.)

fetching trash

Julito Calderon goes on his usual route fetching trash from his assigned area in Barangay San Juan South in San Fernando Pampanga on September 16, 2021. The pandemic saw added trash into the pile, such as surgical masks used for protection against COVID-19. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Like most other cities and towns in the country, San Fernando saw a rise in garbage volume with the increase in use of plastics and other items essential for virus protection, including surgical face masks, face shields, and gloves, even single-use food packaging.

But the city has managed well, complying with a long-standing “zero plastic” ordinance. It was “just a matter of reiterating” the local law, said Santiago.

“So dahil sa COVID, magtaka ka, ‘yung waste natin nadagdagan lalo na, you know ‘yung patatagan ng health care system ngayon, because of our response, kung sino matatag na government, health care system, ‘yan ang makakapag-address in terms of balance for economic activity, down to economic recovery,” Santiago told ABS-CBN in an online interview.

(So because of COVID, you'd wonder, there was more waste, and you know now it's all about who has a strong health care system, because of our response, the government that has a resilient health care system, that's the one that could address in terms of balancing for economic activity, down to economic recovery.)

The rise in trash volume entailed boosting efforts of the City Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) for efficient waste collection and disposal. The mayor issued a circular to barangays directing them to ensure at-source segregation in households and establishments, and to disinfect before disposal.

Santiago said the city also considers garbage collectors as frontliners in the COVID-19 fight, with the city putting a premium on cleanliness as part of efforts to curb infections.

“Even ‘yung garbage collectors, considered frontliners to continue ‘yung 24-hour na serbisyo na binibigay ng isang local government na kasama ang solid waste management,” he said.

(We consider garbage collectors as frontliners who continue the 24-hour service that a local government provides, including solid waste management.)

Waste warriors

Garbage truck drivers and collectors

Garbage truck drivers and collectors take a rest after finishing the day's work in Barangay Dolores in San Fernando Pampanga on September 16, 2021. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Fernando Salvador, a caretaker at a materials recovery facility in San Fernando City's San Juan South, said waste management work doubled because of the pandemic due to added trash and the constant concern that workers may contract the virus.

But it helps that most residents have already learned how to segregate on their own, making the job easier for workers like him.

"Siyempre doble hirap, di naman pwede na bara-bara 'yan baka mahawa ka… nag-iingat kami may pamilya rin," he said in an interview at the San Juan South MRF.

(Of course it's twice as hard, we can't be careless because you might get infected... we're being careful because we have families.)

"Marami na rin natututo na, bawas sa trabaho namin kasi noon kami pa nagse-segregate, eh binawal 'yon... Karamihan naman halos natuto na. Kaya medyo OK na rin. Talagang di mo naman ma-hundred percent," he said.

(Many residents have learned, and that eases our job because before, we were the ones who had to segregate but that was not allowed anymore. Most have learned [how to segregate] so that's good. You can't expect compliance to be a hundred percent.)

Waste management workers in the city have continued the work despite dangers they face because of exposure to potentially hazardous trash, on top of the everyday risk of going out.

"Kami ang lumalabas, kami ang nagpupunta sa bahay-bahay... kasi di naman nakakalabas 'yung mga tao. Basta nasa gate na nila, kami na maghahakot. 'Yun lang po siyempre minsan baka maano kami ng COVID, minsan natatakot din kami," said Joel Desquitado, a garbage truck driver in the city's Barangay Dolores.

(We are the ones who go out, going house to house, because people can't go out. Once the trash bags are at their gates, we're the ones who have to collect. Of course we might also get infected by COVID, sometimes we also get scared.)

He cited how the trash they collect "may have viruses," but that they can't stop the work because garbage will pile up. This, even as their families would get concerned for their safety when going out every day.

"'Yun po natatakot sila sa uri ng trabaho namin kaya lang wala tayong magagawa, frontliners na kami rin kasi 'yun ang trabaho namin. Nakasalalay rin ang trabaho namin," he said, adding that they just make sure to wear masks all the time and clean themselves up after work.

(They are concerned about the kind of work we have but there's nothing we can do, we're also frontliners and that's our job. Our job is on the line.)

Garbage truck drivers and collectors

Garbage truck drivers and collectors take a rest after finishing the day's work in Barangay Dolores in San Fernando Pampanga on September 16, 2021. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Rico Maniago, a garbage collector, said prayers are another essential in their COVID-19 defense.

"Nag-iingat na lang dahil sa kalaban na hindi natin nakikita, 'yung coronavirus, 'yan parating nag-iingat, nagdarasal para maiwasan ung sakit at 'yon palaging umiinom ng vitamins para malakas ang pangangatawan," he said.

(We are careful against the enemy we can't see, the coronavirus, so we are always careful, we pray to avoid getting sick and take our vitamins to stay strong.)

"Kailangan i-sacrifice 'yung aming sarili dahil kailangan talagang makuha mga basura ng bawat bahay. Di pwedeng pending sa bahay ang basura dahil matatambakan sila," he said, adding they have never stopped daily garbage collections through the pandemic.

(We have to sacrifice ourselves because we really have to collect garbage in each house. Garbage can't stay uncollected otherwise it will pile up.)

Task Force Ligtas and other initiatives

Task Force Ligtas

Photo from the San Fernando City government official website

A crucial part of the city’s waste management effort in the middle of the pandemic is a community-based task force launched in January to keep residents aligned with zero-waste guidelines and ensure prompt service across all fronts while maintaining the city's ecological balance.

San Fernando calls it Task Force LIGTAS, which stands for Ligtas na Implementasyon ng Gobyerno Tungo sa Angat na Serbisyo.

The mayor said it also means “ligtas buhay, ligtas kalikasan, ligtas daan, ligtas kailugan,” the pandemic version of its long-running task force for environmental protection and sustainable development.

“So nagkaroon kami ng task force, Task Force KKK: Kaayusan Para sa Kalikasan at Kaunlaran. So ‘pag walang kalikasan, walang kaunlaran. There’s no sustainable development. Ngayon pinalitan namin 'yon, Task Force Ligtas,” said Santiago .

(We have a task force, Task Force KKK: Kaayusan Para sa Kalikasan at Kaunlaran. So if you neglect environment, there's no progress. There's no sustainable development. Now, we changed that to Task Force Ligtas.)

The task force has 1,200 members from subdivisions and barangays who work together “for the continuous monitoring, to enforce the law, and also our CENRO, to continue our [information and education campaign] through social media,” said the mayor.

In July last year, while in the thick of pandemic response, the city also entered into a partnership with Republic Cement to further promote waste segregation under the company’s “Plastic Neutrality” initiative.

Under the agreement, Republic Cement gives the city cement in exchange for “non-recyclable residual plastics, sachets, polystyrene and discarded tires” collected from residents and establishments and brought to the city’s materials recovery facilities. The company uses the plastics in its production process.

For every ton of baled plastic waste, Republic Cement gives the city five bags of cement; 10 bags for every ton of shredded plastics; and five bags for every ton of tires.

“So ang plastic natin are segregated and brought to the MRF [Materials Recovery Facility], pero one thing good, we have a MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] with Republic Cement, kinukuha ng Republic Cement, pinapalitan ang basura, so nadagdagan recyclables natin eh,” he said.

(So the plastics are segregated and brought to the MRF, but one good thing, we have a MOA with Republic Cement, they take the trash, so now we are collecting more recyclables.)

The cement sacks are stored at the city’s General Services Division and dispatched for use in rehabilitation of MRFs whenever necessary.

“Darating ang panahon ‘yung mga plastic iipunin nila sa barangay, papalitan natin ng semento ngayon,” Santiago said.

(There will come a time people will gather plastics per barangay, and we will replace that with cement.)

agriculture office also encourages residents

Photo from the San Fernando City government official website

The city’s agriculture office also encourages residents to create compost pits using their biodegradable waste, and use the compost for vegetable farming in their households.

And in an upcoming project, the city is looking to work with a firm that converts plastic waste into fuel.

“May nag-offer 'build, operate, transfer' at zero capitalization, siguro ang puhunan lang namin dito lugar na lalagyan nila, and regulation,” said Santiago.

(A company offered a "build, operate, transfer" project with zero capitalization, what we just have to provide is a place for the facility, and regulation.)

“‘Yung plastic ico-convert into petrochemical and diesel fuel. That’s a breakthrough sa atin… this is pioneering,” he said.

(The facility can convert plastic into petrochemical and diesel fuel. That's a breakthrough for us... this is pioneering.)

All these initiatives have given the city its current waste diversion rate of 82 percent, which means majority of garbage in the city are recycled or else converted into useful material such as compost.

This is a rise from 76 percent in 2017, and even a greater increase from 55 percent in 2013, when Santiago first took office as mayor.

For Santiago, maintaining the city’s zero waste programs despite novel demands of the pandemic boils down to will and putting priority on what matters.

“Once na if you prioritize something na it will benefit and for sustainable development, dapat may COVID o wala andiyan ‘yan. Tulad ng peace and order. Dahil ba sa COVID pababayan ba peace and order?” he said.

(Once you prioritize something that it will benefit and for sustainable development, whether or not there is COVID, it should be there. Like peace and order. Just because there is COVID, should you neglect peace and order?)

“So these are challenges eh. Hindi exactly beneficial [ang COVID-19 pandemic] pero lalong gumanda ang response natin when it comes to climate change adaptation and mitigation response,” he said.

(So these are challenges. The pandemic is not exactly beneficial but we were able to improve our response when it comes to climate change adaption and mitigation response.)

The city has placed the environment first, he said, and from this emanates all its development plans and goals.

“Everything always starts with a dream, a purpose and a goal. We’re trying to make the city, we’re trying for sustainable development, so we revisited our vision, a shared vision… So we came up with a vision that the city of San Fernando is full of culture, the city of San Fernando, home of the giant lantern, a model city of countryside development,” he said.

Santiago said the city is “full of environment” while also economically viable.

“Tapos socially matatag health care namin. So pano namin nagawa 'yan? Because of partnerships, collaboration, transparency, accountability. Ang pamamahala hindi ko lang iniwan sa isang grupo. So ang pamamahala kinalat namin,” he said.

(We have a resilient health care system. How did we do that? Because of partnerships, collaboration, transparency, accountability. Leadership is not left to one group. We delegated the tasks.)

Navotas City: Discipline is key

Barangay environment officers Corazon Orqueta

Barangay environment officers Corazon Orqueta and Josie Macabantad attend to their daily tasks at the materials recovery facility in Barangay Tanza I, Navotas City, September 03, 2021. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Through his first term as mayor, when Navotas transitioned from town to city, Toby Tiangco faced the challenge of getting people to segregate their waste. He knew it was not an overnight mission, so he put all systems in place and let the mindset— that of proper waste disposal— take root among his constituents.

These days, on his second time helming the city after returning as mayor in 2019, Tiangco found that many residents are now compliant, aware that taking care of their environment ultimately redounds to their livelihood.

“Ang sinasabi ko, 2010, out of frustration bago matapos term ko, kasi noon sinasabi segregate, segregate. Sinasabi ko ‘alam niyo pagkolekta ng basura parang it is the first step, segregation is the second step. So i-perfect muna natin collection, ‘pag perfect na natin ‘yung collection, saka natin i-concentrate sa segregation,” he said.

(In 2010, out of frustration I said that before my term ended, segregate, segregate. I told them collection is the first step, segregation is the second step. So let's perfect collection first, then once we do that, concentrate on segregation.)

“Pero ‘yun nga, natapos 'yung term ko, hindi ko na na-achieve ‘yon. But now I am lucky, saka di na pinipilit ang tao ngayon. They are aware, alam nila. Saka sila may gusto, sila may gusto na sinusunod ‘yan,” said Tiangco, who returned to the mayoralty in the last elections after serving in the House of Representatives.

(But my term finished, I wasn't able to achieve that. But now I am lucky, and people don't have to be forced these days. They are aware, and they are the ones who want that followed.)

Navotas is now among Philippine cities recognized for its waste management program, an effort that the city sowed seeds on soon after the enactment of Republic Act 9003 or the Solid Waste Management Act of 2001.

Tiangco was fresh in the mayoralty at the time, and he knew waste management is crucial for a city, then still a town, that struggled with perennial flooding. Keeping the environment clean is also critical as many Navotas residents draw their livelihood from the Manila Bay, which continues to be rehabilitated to this day.

“Napakaimportante kasi sa amin 'yung tamang disposal ng garbage kasi in order to solve the flooding problem, we built already 54 pumping stations eh di ba. ‘Pag ‘yung basura napunta sa pumping station, masisira ‘yung mga bombastic pumping station, kasi magbabara don, so it is very important to us to ensure na tama ang disposal ng garbage para ‘di sya makasira sa pumping station,” he said.

(Proper disposal of garbage is very important for us to solve the flooding problem. We already built 54 pumping stations. If the trash reaches the pumping station, the bombastic pumping station will be damaged, blocked.)

He said if households are careless in handling their trash, small pieces could make their way to the Manila Bay, where many residents rely for their livelihood.

“…[K]aramihan ng ating kababayan ay sa pangingisda nabubuhay, so it will be to our best interest na water quality sa Manila Bay ay maging mas maganda dahil dadami ang yamang dagat na naandyan. Konektado sya lahat eh,” he said.

(Many of our residents rely on fishing, so it will be to our best interest that the water quality of Manila Bay is good because there will be more fish resources there. It's all connected.)

Volunteer Michelle Vasquez uses her pedicab to fetch household and kitchen garbage

Volunteer Michelle Vasquez uses her pedicab to fetch household and kitchen garbage in Barangay Tanza II in Navotas City on September 03, 2021. The task requires her to make trips through neighborhoods and pick up their trash, as residents also do their part in disposing their household trash. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

It took several major shifts in policy and strategy for the city to achieve its current level of waste management efficiency, said Tiangco.

For one, the city stopped outsourcing garbage collection, which could cost millions in private contracting annually. Navotas’ system of garbage collection has been “by administration” since around 2001, the same year the country’s solid waste management law was passed.

This was coupled with restructuring the payroll system of garbage collectors, which shifted their pay rate to “per trip.” Thus, the more trips they make in a day, the more money they make.

“Kaya dapat pangalagaan ng garbage collectors ‘yung truck nila. And how do you do that? Ginawa natin na per trip so talagang pinapangalagaan nila ang garbage truck as if it were their own. That is their source of income,” Tiangco said.

(That's why garbage collectors have to take care of their trucks. And how do you do that? We made it per trip so the garbage collectors take care of their trucks as if it were their own. That is their source of income.)

The city also started earning income through the operation of a sanitary landfill in Barangay Tanza, a facility operated by a private contractor that pays the city for leasing the land. Navotas also dumps its trash in the area at no cost.

Navotas, through its partnership with the Mother Earth Foundation, also boosted its grassroots campaign for at-source segregation. Over the years, reaching out to residents has become faster and more efficient through the city’s social media channels, the mayor noted.

“Ang tingin ko dyan is ano eh more information, kasi di ba mas accessible na ‘yung internet, so mas marami sila nakikita sa ibang lugar ganito, sa ibang [lugar] na malinis, marami nakikita na information on why we have to segregate, they have more information about global warming. Di ba syempre, prior to 2010, limited masyado ung information eh,” he said.

(I think it's more information since the internet is more accessible now, so they see places that are clean, they get more information on garbage segregation, global warming. Of course, prior to 2010 information was limited.)

“It’s over a period of time. Matagal ‘yan. Hindi siya mabilisan (It takes a long time, it's not instant),” said Tiangco on making residents compliant.

To reinforce rules, Tiangco also calls out his constituents on his Facebook page for poor disposal habits, such as this 2019 post on trash that blocked part of the sewer.

The mayor said the city has managed to form a habit among its residents to only put their trash out when the garbage truck is already there.

“Ever since before, di kami naniniwala sa iniiwan lang ‘yung basura eh. Ever since I was mayor for the first time 10 years ago, sinasabi ko na ‘pag walang disiplina ang tao sa paglabas ng basura doon sa pagdating ng truck, kahit araw-araw mangolekta ‘yung truck ng basura, o kahit twice a day mangolekta, ‘pag alis ng truck ng basura mo, iwan mo ulit basura mo, may basura lagi sa kalsada,” said Tiangco.

(Ever since before, we have not subscribed to the belief that people can just leave their trash out. Ever since I was mayor for the first time 10 years ago, I've always said that if people don't have the discipline to only put out trash when the truck is already there, even if you collect trash every day, when the truck leaves, people will again put out their trash, there will always be trash on the street.)

“The only way na mawala ang basura sa kalsada is disiplinahin muna ng tao ‘yung sarili niya na ilalabas lang niya ‘yung basura sa oras ng collection at 'pag naandyan na ung truck. Kaya nga ‘yung trucks namin may sound system ‘yon na malakas para alam na padating na ‘yung truck ng basura,” he said.

(The only way to get rid of trash is for people to discipline themselves and only put out trash at the time of collection and when the truck is there. That's why our trucks have a loud sound system so people know the truck is already there.)

Barangay environment officer Josie Macabantad from Barangay Tanza 1 noted how residents have been compliant with garbage disposal rules, though she has also given warning to some violators.

Macabantad goes around the barangay early morning every day to check if residents are properly disposing their garbage and segregating. Violators get a ticket, and repeat offenses may lead to a P5,000 fine under a local ordinance.

"Ayos naman po kasi sumusunod naman sila sa amin 'pag kami naghahawak sa kanila. Iniikot naming mga residente. Natututo din sila kasi kinokolekta kitchen waste araw-araw," said Macabantad, who also maintains an MRF garden grown on compost.

Vegetable garden in the middle of the village MRF

Josie Macabantad and Corazon Orqueta, both barangay environment officers in Barangay Tanza 1, tend to a vegetable garden at the village MRF where they plant in-demand leafy greens such as pechay and mustasa, among others. Photo taken September 3, 2021. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

At a vegetable garden in the middle of the village MRF, environment officers grow lettuce, pechay, mustasa, ampalaya, and other in-demand vegetables using compost made out of biodegradable waste— an important part of their waste diversion efforts.

The garden yields harvest worth around P500 at least once a month, said Macabantad.

The pandemic challenge

When the pandemic came, it took fine-tuning for the city to keep its waste management efficient. This, even as the COVID-19 crisis brought an increase in trash volume, with new kinds of hazardous waste added to the mix of daily household trash.

The city now enforces a rule that all hazardous waste, including disposable face masks and shields, must be placed in yellow bags.

“‘Yun nga di ba nagkaroon ‘yung mga face masks, face shield, ‘pag tinatapon, ‘yun ung nadagdag na challenge doon sa sa pandemic. Siyempre ang kailangan diyan is information campaign, so post tayo, inform tayo sa ating mga kababayan na as much as possible ilagay nila sa yellow na lalagyan ‘yung mga ganyang mga hazardous waste,” Tiangco said.

(So we now have face masks, face shield, when those are disposed, that's the added challenge in the pandemic. Of course we need information campaign, so we post [on social media], inform people that as much as possible they should put hazardous waste in yellow bags.)

“Lahat naman segregation at source, mga nabubulok at di nabubulok, ngayon nadagdagan na sila ng isang ise-segregate which is the masks, the face shields,” he said.

(It's all segregation at source, the biodegradables and non-biodegradables, but now the masks and shields are an addition to what they have to segregate.)

All trash collected, including the usual biodegradables and non-biodegradables, are also disinfected using liquid bleach.

There have been occasional challenges, such as when some garbage collectors needed to go on quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, said Macabantad.

That meant low garbage collection for a few days as many workers were out. But the trash pile was eventually hauled out.

Barangay environment officers Corazon Orqueta and Josie Macabantad

Barangay environment officers Corazon Orqueta and Josie Macabantad sort reusable waste at the MRF in Barangay Tanza 1, Navotas City, September 3, 2021. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Such is the challenge for garbage collectors and other workers such as Macabantad and her colleague Corazon Orqueta, who go out in the streets daily to do their job armed with face masks, face shields, disinfectant and constant prayers as protection against the virus.

"Ang kailangan namin trabaho eh. Kung iintindihin namin [ang takot] walang mangyayari sa buhay namin. Basta alam namin na may Diyos na tumitingin sa amin, ginagabayan kami kahit saan kami magpunta. Unang-una talaga 'yan bago kami umalis sa bahay: pray," said Orqueta.

(What we need is a job. If we keep minding our fear, nothing will happen to us. We just know that there is a God who is looking after us, guiding us wherever we go. That's the very first thing we do before leaving the house: pray.)

This is why the city provides additional support for workers in the waste management sector. Under city ordinance No. 2020-10, Navotas granted a P500 hazard pay daily to regular, contractual or casual employees in the city.

“There is a risk to the job they are doing eh di ba, it’s a hazard, because of the hazard of their job. Sinama natin sila sa frontliners di ba kaya (we included them among frontliners so) they were qualified for hazard pay,” said Tiangco.

With such policy shifts and long-standing programs, the city has managed its garbage properly despite added challenges during the pandemic.

“Ang natutunan natin diyan (what we learned) is as long as it is segregated at source, it can be managed,” Tiangco said.

“Siyempre ‘pag at source, konti pa lang volume niya eh, household waste pa lang siya. ‘Pag di siya na-segregate at source, it’s so difficult, o kung hindi, tatagal ang garbage collection, kasi ‘yung garbage collector siya mismo magse-segregate,” he said.

(Of course, at source, trash volume is still low, it's still just household waste. If you don't segregate at source, it's so difficult, or if not, garbage collection will take a long time because the garbage collector will himself segregate.)

In the first four months of 2021, the city’s average diversion rate was at 63.3 percent, a year-on-year increase from 58.6 percent in the same period last year.

And throughout the pandemic, from its onset in 2020 until this year, the city has managed to maintain it’s diversion rate at over 50 percent, higher than the regional average.

Renewed call to mind trash

The waste diversion rate in both San Fernando and Navotas are above average. Data cited in a 2017 report of the Senate Economic Planning Office shows that as of 2015, the solid waste diversion rate in Metro Manila was at 48 percent, and 46 percent outside Metro Manila.

solid waste diversion rate

This is somewhat encouraging, as the solid waste management law requires a minimum of 25 percent recovery of solid waste through reuse, recycling or composting, among other methods, through local materials recovery facilities (MRFs).

The National Solid Waste Management Status Report of the DENR's Environmental Management Bureau showed a rise in MRFs across the country over the 10-year period covered by the report: from 2,701 in 2008 to 13,612 in 2018.

Meanwhile, households remain the top source of garbage, accounting for 56.7 percent on average from 2008 to 2013.

Commercial establishments contribute over a quarter at 27.1 percent, with a chunk from markets; 12.1 percent come from institutional sources such as government offices, schools, and medical facilities; and 4.1 percent are from industrial sources such as manufacturing plants.

garbage in the Philippines

Unfortunately, while some localities have managed to maintain proper waste management through the pandemic, many LGUs are failing, according to reports that reached the DENR.

On Aug. 22, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu issued a statement calling out LGUs that have been “negligent” in their disposal of solid waste.

“It has come to our attention that after closing the illegally operating dumpsites, there are LGUs that are not properly disposing of their solid waste,” Cimatu said.

“We are warning these LGUs to seriously manage their wastes or else face consequences of violating Republic Act 9003,” he said.

This followed DENR’s closure of 335 illegally operating open dumps across the country, which have been violating the waste management law, according to DENR data as of May this year. Operations to shutter such illegal garbage sites started in 2017.

These include a previously closed dump in Barangay Macabaklay in Gapan City, Nueva Ecija, which authorities found had been reopened and operated as an open dump.

A trash transfer station in Barangay Pambuan, also in Gapan, meanwhile was found to have had an “accumulation of solid waste which were directly in contact to the soil surface as well as infestation of flies.” The DENR cited a report that said “obnoxious odor was also perceived” in the area.

For such violations, the city government of Gapan was cited for breaching the Solid Waste Management Act of 2001 and was directed “to cause the immediate closure and rehabilitation of the subject open dumpsite.”

In a separate call, Cimatu also reminded households to properly dispose of their health care waste to ensure that garbage collectors, who are exposed daily to such hazards, are able to handle these properly.

“These household health care wastes – face masks, face shields and gloves – that we use every day should not be mixed with the residual wastes. Lagyan po natin ng label na household health care waste ang mga ito (let's label them household health care waste), so that these will be properly handled by our garbage collectors,” he said.

Ordering in? Your food delivery may contain toxic chemicals from plastic packs

Balance between health and environment

Volunteers assist garbage workers collecting trash

Volunteers assist garbage workers collecting trash from houses along a street in Barangay Commonwealth, Quezon City under 'special concern lockdown' on August 19, 2021. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

With the overall rise in garbage volume due to health care needs in the pandemic, it is crucial to strike a balance between protecting oneself against the virus and protecting the environment.

“We’ve seen and it’s true, there’s been a spike in the use of PPEs and disposable masks in many places and, correspondingly, an increase in medical waste. There’s also an increase in delivery and takeout containers, mostly made of disposables,” said award-winning environment activist Von Hernandez, global coordinator of environment group Break Free From Plastic (BFFP).

“It is a problem, but the soulution is again to think that we should be able to protect our health, the health of our families, without creating damage to the environment through the use of reusable masks or reusable PPEs, which have been proven to be as effective as disposable masks,” he said.

Yobel Novian Putra, climate and clean energy campaign associate for GAIA Asia Pacific, seconded this, saying there should be a greater push for reusables.

“We have reusable options. And it encourages the local economy. So if this can be applied in the pandemic situation, imagine if we are going towards recovery, that reusable is possible… but we need to make this at scale,” said Indonesia-based Putra, who shared he has friends who are into the production of reusable face masks.

He said incentives should be offered businesses who go into environmentally-sound practices, instead of offering tax breaks to pollutive industries.

“I think it’s a matter of showing that it is doable and that it is happening. But to scale everything up, you need public support and government support. You need incentives. You don’t throw your money away in these pollutive petrochemical industries with a 25-year tax holiday, but you give incentives to these new technologies, and it’s doable. We see more countries now investing more in lithuium-ion technology to make renewable energy more accessible,” he said.

Recycling not enough: Groups call for waste prevention amid global plastics crisis

In a report, GAIA showed how zero waste approaches could help countries recover from the pandemic-wrought global economic slump by creating more jobs.

pandemic-wrought global economic slump

Using data from 16 countries, the study said zero waste programs generated more jobs than pollutive approaches such as burning or burying waste.

It showed job generation figures for every 10,000 tons of waste processed in a year: 404 jobs came out of repair programs, 115 jobs came from recycling, 55 from remanufacturing and 7 from composting.

Meanwhile, only 2 jobs were generated in landfills or waste incineration facilities for the same trash volume.

“Despite the diversity in geographic and economic conditions, the results are clear: zero waste approaches create orders of magnitude more jobs than disposal-based systems that primarily burn or bury waste,” the report said.

“These results demonstrate the compatibility of environmental and economic goals and position zero waste as an opportune social infrastructure in which investments can strengthen local and global economic resilience,” it said.

Also using available waste diversion data from model cities around the world with over 80% waste recovery, including the Philippines’ San Fernando City, the study projects that the zero waste approach to waste management could generate “thousands of jobs… through increased recycling, remanufacturing, and composting.”

“By directing recovery funds towards the creation of zero waste cities, governments across the globe will reduce pollution, create long-term desirable employment, and build fairer economies. Zero waste solutions present a path for just recovery that is viable financially, socially, and environmentally,” it said.

Political will

Hernandez also underscored the need for political will to replicate good practices across the country, as shown by the examples of San Fernando City and Navotas City.

“This is where, of course, not just creativity but also political will and leadership come in,” he told ABS-CBN News in an interview.

“Because as you’ve seen, we have model policies in the Philippines. We actually have good models of zero-waste communities. We’ve gone beyond this stage of model building. It’s just waiting to be scaled up and along with it, the solutions,” he said.

He noted how incompetence and corruption have become hindrances to seeing more examples of zero-waste cities in the country.

“One of the main barriers to scaling up of alternatives and solutions is this, let’s face it, there’s incompetence, one thing, and the other thing is corruption. There’s so many what you call rent seekers in the system who’d rather maintain the status quo because they’d benefit out of it. And that includes local government officials— not all—who benefit from waste collection and the fixation on centralized waste management facilities,” Hernandez said.

“The only way to combat that is with greater transparency. We need to demand transparency from our leaders, from our officials, so that the level of corruption goes down, and also public accountability increases. So that’s what activism is about,” he said.

This story was produced under the GAIA-BFFP Asia Pacific Media Fellowship.