War on Plastic

Summer is almost over but in a country where we have really nice beaches, it might as well be summer all year round. But our oceans are now choking in plastic. Heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s an accumulation of ocean plastic and garbage, which to date, is three times the size of France, and it’s getting bigger!

Why don’t we just clean it up? Not as easy as it sounds. There’s the issue of cost, distance, and effects of photodegradation (sunlight reducing plastic to smaller bits making them even more difficult to clean up).

Plastic is deemed evil for a reason (i.e. toxicity, pollution, etc.) but its usefulness in terms of food safety and food preservation is undeniable. A Quartz article explains that “Plastic is the symptom. Our centralized food system is the disease.” And a systemic issue will take time to be resolved.

One thing we can already do, however, is to start getting rid of unnecessary plastic. The good thing is more and more people are becoming aware of this. A lot of efforts are now being done to tackle the challenge.

There’s the ban of single-use plastic in some cities and municipalities, even among corporations. People are refusing straws and are opting for better alternatives – paper straws, bamboo straws, metal straws, and glass straws. There’s even a collapsible and seaweed-based edible straw. Speaking of edible, an alternative plastic bag made from cassava can be eaten or is compostable (as opposed to the oxo-degradable bags which just break down into micro plastics).

A growing group of individuals are starting to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle bringing re-usable bags, and jars, and containers when they go shopping; and re-filling their re-usable water drinking bottles instead of buying bottled water.

We have all these better options and it’s such a simple decision to make. It’s a matter of saying yes to the simple solution with big impact and letting go of the attraction of convenience.

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Halo-halo in the mountains with a re-usable container.
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No Straw! No Straw!

It’s silly but I actually dreamt about this. I requested that my drink be served without a straw. My drink arrived with a freakin’ plastic straw! I wake up and the same thing happens in my waking world. Geez, just remove the straw then, what’s the big deal? Well, we’re unnecessarily creating waste which could have been avoided at the very beginning. It’s recycled anyway? Only 10% of plastic produced globally is recyled. Most of it is trashed and ends up in the ocean forming the Great Pacific garbage patch, a collection of marine debris mostly plastic. We create biodegradable plastics but they don’t readily decompose and some become tiny bits also known as microplastics.

January is the Zero Waste Month in the Philippines and I wish we could channel even a little of Lauren Singer’s effort in striving for a zero waste lifestyle. Or maybe we should start segregating our wastes into 34 categories like the town of Kamikatsu in Japan. But really, segregating wastes into biodegradable and non-biodegradable could already make a difference.  Garbage dumped in landfills can significantly be reduced if the biodegradables are composted.

We used to have just one garbage bin in the office. I felt bad whenever I see the garbage all mixed up. After work, when I leave the building, I see these piles of garbage bags and these men sorting through the waste, probably looking for recyclables they could salvage and sell. Again, segregating wastes into biodegradable and non-biodegradable would make life easier for them. So that’s what I proposed and I’m glad people in the office obliged. I didn’t want to impose too much.

Waste segregation is very basic but you would be surprised how it can get complicated. We don’t exactly have a proper system for waste management. We have the policy in place but lack the political will to fully implement it. And there are much more important things to think about. Heck, environmental issues should be prioritized and addressed but that’s just me.

In a developing country like the Philippines, where poverty is still pretty much part of life, how can you ask people to avoid single use sachet contributing to plastic pollution when that’s what they can afford. Same with patronizing organic food or sustainable and environment-friendly products, which are relatively more expensive. My friends and I were talking about this one time, relating it to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If people can barely satisfy their basic needs, you can’t expect them to care for the plight of the environment. On the other hand, why do smart, caring people ignore environmental issues? Why can’t those who can take action?

At the beginning of this year, I wrote “Note to Self” to remind myself to breathe and let go. But as an environmentalist, sometimes I can’t help feeling frustrated. The more you know, the more you care, the more you suffer. You’re labeled anti-development. Or they think you’re just exaggerating or over reacting. Add to that the fact that environmental defenders are being killed! Why did I decide to be an environmentalist, haha!

Because as Helen Keller puts it, “I am only one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” I guess, that’s one thing I can do. Raise awareness through my writing, through the environmental initiatives I participate in, through my lifestyle.

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Photo by Jason Quema

It’s funny how my friends remark, “Ryan will get angry” when I see them using single-use plastic. At least they’re more aware, I suppose. And maybe one of these days, they would also say, “No straw, please.”

No longer the Baguio we used to know

Baguio has recently been designated as one of the UNESCO Creative Cities for crafts and folk art. While this calls for a celebration, I can’t help but think about the issues haunting my beloved hometown.

Baguio is no longer the City of Pines. The trees have been replaced by malls, tall buildings, and condos. Are we trying to copy Manila? Manila of all places! Remember how trees were cut to make way for a “green” Sky Park that features environment-friendly facilities. Really?! How smart! Very, very smart, indeed!

I’ve joined a protest walk to stop this madness but sadly, corporate greed prevailed. In a funny twist of fate, the mall’s roof was blown away by a typhoon, not once but twice!

Now comes another “brilliant” proposal of constructing a podium car parking at Burnham Park.

Baguio is no longer the “Clean and Green City Hall of Famer” it used to be. The city is choking. Choking in smoke, garbage, and plastic. There’s an ordinance that bans plastic and Styrofoam. I understand that this is yet to be fully implemented next year but when I was in town the past weekend, it seems like there’s not even an attempt to transition to eco-friendly bags.

Baguio is no longer the Summer Capital of the Philippines that we knew. This title, in fact, has been abused to justify putting up more hotels, more establishments, more cafes. Apparently, there’s almost a hundred registered cafes in the city! Far too many of everything if you ask me.

Blame doesn’t only fall on big corporations, businessmen, and realtors. Baguio residents have allowed the invasion of houses on mountains which appear nice at night but look like garbage piled on top of each other at daytime. It’s easy for us to put the fault on tourists for garbage and too much traffic but we also contributed to these.

Sigh… the rant just goes on.

But the real question is where do we go from here?

A Green Mind

I woke up thinking how using the AC demands more electricity which primarily is sourced from coal thereby contributing to carbon emissions hastening climate change. But William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book, “The Upcycle” claims that this is more of a design rather than an environmental problem. If the energy comes from a renewable source, then you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying the comfort provided by an air-conditioned room.

Same thing with taking a long shower. Nothing wrong with that if the water is recycled.

And this applies to products which don’t necessarily have to end up as trash if they follow the cradle to cradle concept, a holistic and waste-free way of manufacturing.

While reading this fascinating book in the bus, I can’t help but shake my head and wonder how difficult it is to pocket the tiny bus ticket that people put more effort in stuffing it in corners and crannies. Don’t get me started on the supposed inspection of these bus tickets. We do know there’s a better system and is already existing at that. Another design flaw.

Would it make a difference if I confront them? I once did that in the jeepney when this full grown, obviously educated woman, just mindlessly threw the garbage on the floor and I told her, “That’s not the garbage bin.” She just looked at me innocently as if she didn’t do anything. And that’s what I end up doing when encountering such individuals. Stare at them spitefully and they stare back confused wondering what they did wrong.

Littering is bad and everybody knows it but we’re just too lazy to care, that is, if we care at all.

Speaking of trash, another frustration I have is with straws and plastics. When you say, “No straw/no plastic, please” vendors or servers sometimes find that amusing. I was told, “Remove the straw yourself.” So when I see my friends using straws, I judge them, a little. I observed that for most people, these things are not a big deal.

How about health? We know that fastfood, processed food, and too much meat is bad news. Bad for the environment, too. But it doesn’t matter. It’s what’s available, it’s cheap, and they taste so good, as well. I still eat fastfood sometimes because it’s that convenient. And real food is difficult to come buy these days. I was a pescatarian for a while wanting to be a vegetarian but options can be very limiting. Add to that the idea of micro plastics in my fish and pesticides in my veggies. Besides, according to “The Upcycle,” we should celebrate diversity and that includes diversity in diet. So right now, being a flexitarian is the best option for me.

I don’t know if it’s just a trend but more and more people are turning to organics, and healthy living, and being more mindful and more sustainable in their ways. This is the right thing to do but who am I to tell people how to live their lives. As zero waste advocate Lauren Singer puts it, what environmentalists can do is to show everyone that there are other better options.

I remember the quote from Inception: “An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow.” So I guess my goal, since it’s Environment Month and all, is to plant seeds of green ideas and hope that these would grow in the minds of people. Because the truth is (and this is not some kind of an alternative fact), environmentalism, this seemingly hopeless idealism, is for humanity’s survival.

A Plastic Tale

I’m cheap, easy to manufacture, and you could mold me into any form you wish. You can use me once and throw me away and forget about me altogether. That, unfortunately, is not the end of my story. Because apparently, I can outlast your life and be here forever.

Sometimes, I get recycled but mostly I’m buried or dumped or kept somewhere away from your sight. Other times, you burn me and I give my last breath of life through toxic fumes. Or I let the wind carry me up in the air or I just float endlessly into the sea.

Life in the ocean can never be lonely. I’m reunited with all my kind at the North Pacific Gyre where we form a garbage patch. And thanks to the biggest plastic polluters, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, we could soon conquer the ocean.

I feel guilty, though, as I cause the death of countless animals when they mistake me for food or when they get entangled in my deadly embrace. And ever pervasive, I can break down into micro plastics ending up in your plate of fish.

I know it’s more convenient to use plastic bags instead of reusable ones. Or to buy bottled water instead of carrying a refillable bottle. Or choose disposables instead of washing up. Or drink through a straw instead of simply sipping one’s drink. But there’s already too much of us that maybe it’s about time that you reduce your plastic consumption.

Hey, I won’t take it against you. It’s the least I could do considering that May is the Month of the Ocean. And if it’s not too much, maybe you can even sign the petition calling for ASEAN to unite and act to protect the oceans from plastic and marine debris.

Every single piece of me ever made still exists today. However, I’ve stayed long enough and I’m ready to move on.

Greenpeace whale installation

Stuff, garbage, and the power to choose

I was waiting for my turn at the supermarket checkout counter one time when I noticed that not so many people bring reusable bags with them. I suppose it’s because paper bag is being used and as it’s biodegradable and all, it’s okay. But these would still end up as garbage.

Some would opt buying tote bags. You’re helping the environment by doing so. Well, not necessarily. If you keep on using these bags when you go shopping, then great. But we know quite well that doesn’t really happen. Most of these tote bags remain unused and eventually get tossed in the garbage bin.

In fastfood restaurants, people who order take-out will end up with their food wrapped or placed in too much packaging producing so much waste for just one meal! The use of disposables, though dropping, is still preferred for its convenience.

Everywhere you go, you’re bombarded with one consistent message, “Buy me!” The promise of happiness, fleeting as it is, drives us to keep buying. Surprisingly, we’re not any happier. And all these stuff also equate to more waste.

We’re practically drowning in garbage! But we don’t really care. Out of sight, out of mind. We pay the government a measly environmental fee and it’s their job to bring the stink somewhere else. Worse, these wastes find themselves in bodies of water or they clog sewer systems resulting to massive flooding.

Being a wise consumer or adopting a minimalist lifestyle are seen as solutions. But in order to have real impact, a massive cultural and behavioral change should take place.

Now I’m counting on the ripple effect. How small actions and small changes could lead to something bigger. An individual’s reduction in spending and consumption reduces the income of others, mainly the capitalists who wouldn’t want the flow of money to be disrupted and would do whatever it takes to keep it going. In this regard, we may say we are helpless in the clutch of consumerism but we do have the power. The power to choose to be better consumers and live simpler lives.

 

Annie Leonard’s ‘The Story of Stuff’

A late post for World Environment Day

Do you have a mobile phone? Perhaps you have one or two or even more. Have you ever wondered where all these stuff come from? You might simply read “Made in China” at the bottom but this doesn’t tell you all the processes involved before it arrived in your hands.

Much of the things discussed here were taken from the documentary, “The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard.” The video takes a closer look at the different stages in material economy namely extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal.

First, there’s extraction which according to Leonard is a fancy word for natural resource exploitation, which is a fancy word for trashing the planet. And we’re good with that. Cutting down trees, destroying mountains so that we could mine precious minerals, using up all the water, and driving animal species to extinction. In the past three decades, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base has been consumed.

Next, the materials move to production where energy is used to mix toxic chemicals with the natural resources to make toxic contaminated products. There are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce today. It sounds kind of stupid but we actually choose to use toxic contaminated products – the clothes we’re wearing, the gadgets we work with, things around us; it’s practically everywhere. We may not be aware of the chemicals they use in the production process and we might even reason out that it’s in small quantities that it could never affect us. But we know better. I believe this is one reason why cancer is so common now and why there are a lot of diseases emerging.

Now after production comes distribution which means selling all these toxic contaminated junk as quickly as possible. So the goal is to keep the prices down, keep the people buying, and keep the inventory moving. How do they keep the prices down? By externalizing the costs where the real cost of making stuff aren’t captured in the price.

And who really pays for it? The people who lost their natural resources. The people affected by pollution caused by the production process. The workers exposed to toxic chemicals but are not properly compensated or not covered by insurance and health care. They are the ones who pay for it.

We go now to the heart of the system, the engine that drives it – consumption. We live in a society where value is measured by how much we consume. And we have become voracious consumers. We have this insatiable appetite to keep on buying stuff. And 99 percent of the stuff we buy will be trashed within six months.

That’s because of two things – planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is stuff designed to be useless as quickly as possible. Industrial designers actually discuss how fast they can make stuff break and still leaves the consumer with enough faith in the product to go buy another one. Thus the birth of everything disposable – cups, underwear, camera, etc.

Perceived obsolescence, on the other hand, convinces us to throw away stuff that is still perfectly useful. How do they do that? They change the way the stuff looks. In fashion, for instance, women’s shoe heels go from fat the previous year to skinny this year and from skinny to fat the following year. Ladies who wear fat heeled shoes in a skinny heel year is an embarrassment as it means they haven’t contributed to the consumption system.

Advertisements play a major part in promoting this idea telling us that everything about us is wrong and it can be made right if we just go shopping. Ironically, happiness level is declining. We have more stuff but we have less time for the things that really make us happy – family, friends, leisure time.

Then what happens to all the stuff which becomes useless or we have decided not to use anymore? They become garbage. We are quite aware with the disposal stage but it’s something we always try to ignore despite the stink. Out of sight, out of mind.

The waste is dumped in landfills or worse, burned in an incinerator and then dumped in a landfill. Other countries export disposal too sometimes in the guise of donations. Rich countries giving away their refuse to grateful poor countries.

How about recycling, does it help? It does but it’s not enough. For every one can of garbage, there’s an equivalent of 70 garbage cans produced as it went through the production process. So even if you recycle a hundred percent of your waste, it’s just the tip of the iceberg and couldn’t address the root cause. Also, much of the garbage can’t be recycled since it contains too many toxics or it is actually designed not to be recyclable in the first place.

The future looks grim and the situation seemingly hopeless but a lot of people are becoming aware of the truth behind material economy. Practices grounded on sustainability and equity are now being followed such as green chemistry, zero waste, closed loop production, renewable energy, and local living economies.

Some would say it’s unrealistic and too idealistic that it cannot possibly happen. But we were the ones who created the problem and it’s up to us to make changes.