A walk in the park

November 6, 2015

NEOGAN, a tiny village in Tagaytay city, is home to the Philippines’ only world-class restaurant (Antonio’s is the only restaurant in the country to have made it to the Miele Guide to Asia’s top 50 restaurants), and the weekend retreat of Senator Loren Legarda. It is also home to many poor residents, whose houses are little more than hovels.

What they all share, situated at the heart of the village, is an empty lot turned eco-park. Cheerful rows of medicinal plants and vegetables greet passersby. Near the entrance, plants I’ve never heard of before, such as sambung nyawa, sit beside common herbs like tarragon and oregano. Beside these are beds of lettuce and eggplants.

The vegetable garden is the centerpiece of what is actually a composting and recycle center, or, in local government language, a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Here, the village discards — the biodegradable and recyclable waste — are handled. It all appears deceptively simple, but borrowing the words of Hillary Clinton, “it takes a village to raise [an MRF]”. This means everybody, from the Senator and the world-famous restaurateur, to the barangay captain and the poor residents, shares the task of earth friendly “materials recovery.”

Seen in another way, that is exactly what waste management is. There is no such thing as “waste” — a thing without use or merit. Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said through his Theory of Relativity that everything is a form of energy? So unless you want to challenge Einstein, that banana peel in your hand is “waste” only if you perceive it that way.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was Segregate. Mother Earth Foundation, the country’s lead NGO in the implementation of ecological solid waste management, was tasked by Ms. Legarda to establish an MRF in barangay Neogan, to stand as the model barangay for the entire city of Tagaytay. This kicked off the venture that saw Mother Earth staff members Rap, Mercy, Maie, Jen and Erick visit each and every household in Neogan repeatedly, to inform and educate them about segregating waste, segregated collection, etc.

Creating an MRF can be broken down into numbers: six to eight months of patient training and implementation; three trainors from the Mother Earth Foundation; four barangay personnel implementing a house-to-house education campaign to teach waste segregation at the source; and a budget of about P800,000 for a regular barangay like Neogan.

A previous Mother Earth initiative in Puerto Princesa appears in the book Zero Waste Solution, which features similar waste management programs in different countries, among other things. The author, Dr. Paul Connett, reduces the gargantuan task of solid waste management to simple and interesting terms. He begins by turning the common concept of waste on its head. “Waste is made by mixing discarded items. Waste is unmade (or rather not made in the first place) by keeping discarded materials separated into a few simple categories.”

Connett, whose book has a foreword by British actor Jeremy Irons, lists four basic steps that are applied at the village level:

Households are taught to segregate their waste. This involves keeping like material together in separate containers. Start with food/kitchen waste. Few people know that kitchen waste makes up 50% or more of all our household waste. Imagine how much less waste you will have if you turn this into compost? (Not to mention how much organic fertilizer you will have for your plants). In the unique Philippine situation, most food waste is used as pig feed, and only the vegetable and fruit peel are used for compost. By law (the Ecological Solid Waste Management Law of 2000), it is the barangay’s responsibility to collect your kitchen waste, as well as the other types of waste. So for urban and high-rise dwellers, there is no pressure to compost if they have no backyard. They do have the option of composting in pots.

Other types of waste are paper/carton, plastic, metal/tin. A small amount remains that cannot be recycled at the moment, and these are considered residual waste.

After proper source separation, about 90% of the “waste” is eventually turned into something useful, while only 10% (or less) is residual.

Backed by an ordinance, the barangay develops a solid waste management plan and works out a schedule of collection at the household for each type of waste: biodegradable kitchen waste; paper and cartons; plastic, glass and tin; etc.. Due to its decaying nature, kitchen waste is collected more often than other types of waste. In my own barangay in Quezon City, the barangay collects kitchen waste every weekday. Other types, like bottles, tin and paper can be collected once a week. Used bottles and tin used in food packaging can be soaked in soapy water and then left to dry, to avoid the growth of bacteria and foul odor coming from decaying food.

In Neogan, as in most rural settings in the Philippines, most food waste becomes pig feed, which eliminates a large part of the waste volume. The rest, consisting of fruit and vegetable peels, is then put into compost pits in their own backyards, or in the eco-park if they so wish. (There are ways of composting which reduces the creation of the inevitable methane, a greenhouse gas that is one of the causes on climate change. There are numerous online resources discussing this.)

The MRF/eco-park at Neogan has a portion at the back that takes in recyclables separated into: paper/carton, metal and aluminum and glass. There is also a separate section for hazardous material.

In Kamikatsu, Japan, the recycle center offers a total of 34 categories of materials. Beyond basics, the categories may vary from place to place, and residents have a say since they know their consumption practices well.

The task seems simple, but it is by no means easy. Starting the project presents a huge hurdle, changing the way we see waste. After decades of a convenient throwaway attitude, how do we shift to one of taking responsibility for our consumption?

In the beginning, the majority of the residents were of the throw-away mentality. Ka Teddy of Purok 132 was one of the exceptions. He jumped at the MEF initiative, and at the chance of reminding everyone about the existence of the law on ecological solid waste management. He helped Mother Earth staff members in their house-to-house campaign, educating residents about proper waste segregation, putting up signs on the houses, setting up waste segregators. After months of persistence, despite the high density and inconvenient location of Purok 132, all households are now mindfully segregating their discards.

According to Alejandra Cayanan, who lives right beside the ecopark, after composting and separating recyclables, her household has reduced its waste to just 10% of its original volume.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The food trimmings and leftovers become valuable compost to nourish the herbal plants in the eco-park. These are then used for the barangay’s feeding program for children of poor families.

Sambung nyawa (gynura procumbens) — also known as Leaves of the Gods — is believed to have a number of health benefits ranging from lowering blood pressure to relieving general body pain and rheumatic pain, and treating kidney problems.

Aside from adding that special something to Italian dishes, oregano can be used to fight respiratory tract disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, acne and dandruff, toothache and menstrual cramps — it can also repel insects. It contains fiber, iron, manganese, vitamin E, calcium, omega fatty acids, manganese, and tytrophan, and contains very high concentrations of anti-oxidants.

Tarragon, aside from being a popular seasoning in French cooking, aids in digestion and supports a healthy heart, among other benefits.

Pandan lowers blood pressure and relieves rheumatic pain. It is also a preferred flavoring when steaming rice.

With some effort, our discards can be transformed into something that heals us.

Instead of seeking the easiest and quickest way to get rid of “waste,” one can see consumption as a journey back to where we came from in the first place — mother earth.

(The author has been a member of Mother Earth Foundation since its inception in 1997, and is occasionally invited to observe projects and attend events. Her mother, Sonia Mendoza, is the chairman of Mother Earth Foundation.)

Source: Business World Online