Going (and Staying) Zero-Waste in the Middle of a Pandemic

This is the condensed version of a paper I wrote for a class on women, gender, and the environment. If you wish to read the full version, leave a comment or send me a message.

The landscape of our daily lives is changing. Since the announcement of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Philippines in late January, safety measures have been put in place to protect citizens from the Coronavirus. Mandatory temperature checks, no-contact rules for couriers and food delivery personnel, and physical distancing have become part of our day-to-day.

Photo by Marfil Graganza Aquino

There has also been an increasing need for disposables like masks, face shields, gloves, wet wipes, and tissues, both for Coronavirus-related and non-Coronavirus-related purposes. In such an uncertain time, safety and sanitation go hand-in-hand.

The surge in demand for one-time-use materials has made a bad situation worse – that situation being plastic waste production. Most personal protective equipment (PPE) is made to be used one time, by one person, then disposed of. Even if PPE doesn’t get contaminated while being used, attempting to wash it for reuse may reduce its effectiveness and put you at a higher risk of infection. Gloves and masks, two types of PPE commonly seen in public places, litter the streets and waterways, and even those thrown in proper receptacles will eventually end up in a landfill. Without readily available reusable, disinfectable PPE, single-use plastic seems to be the safest choice when it comes to protecting ourselves from the highly contagious strain of Coronavirus that now poses a threat to the world.

Photo by Anna Shvets

The Luzon-wide quarantine imposed to slow COVID-19 infections caused a large increase in domestic waste. According to research done in Angeles, Pampanga, each member of each household has been producing at least a half kilo more trash every day under quarantine. That’s an additional 90 kilos of garbage per family of six, in a span of one month.

Capas, Tarlac and its surrounding areas also saw a surge in trash production – so much so, in fact, that garbage collectors and waste disposal site workers at Metro Clark Waste Management Corporation are working around the clock to address the ever-growing pile. They have been living on site just to keep household waste disposal ongoing during this crucial time. Perhaps the biggest two factors in this “trash boom” are the increase in medical waste due to the high number of COVID-19 patients, combined with the public’s “throw it out” mentality in response to their fear of infection.

The zero-waste movement in the Philippines is made up of a diverse group of people, business owners, and NGOs. I spoke with two women who have great zero-waste practices both in their businesses and their own homes to find out more about their ECQ and pre-ECQ methods of minimizing waste, and how others can do the same while still following safety protocols.

Aliyah Ong, the founder of Berde 4 Mama, just wanted to buy herself some bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo bars. Her online search turned up some for sale in her area, but for quite a steep price. So she looked into how much these products cost if bought directly from the supplier. After more research, she came to the decision to open her own zero-waste shop and make zero-waste products more affordable to the people who want them – especially people trying to minimize waste on a tight budget. She launched the online shop in April 2018, and in September the following year, Berde’s first physical location officially opened. They sell much more than bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo bars now, offering a wide range of toiletries, cosmetics, household goods like cleaning products and reusable containers, and even food items like coffee. (Photos from Berde 4 Mama Instagram)

Berde was able to maintain its pre-Coronavirus zero-waste practices, which include wrapping products in recycled paper bags or old magazines and reusing old receipts. To secure the packaging and papers, they use a staple-less stapler and kraft paper tape in lieu of plastic scotch tape. Berde has also joined the recycling and upcycling movement, encouraging customers to give them old paper bags and magazines instead of throwing them out, and making tin cans into cute, handy holders.

It appears that the loyal customer base Berde has built up over the past two years has not gone into panic mode over the pandemic. In fact, there was an increase in sales upon the announcement of the ECQ, particularly in hand sanitizers and cleaning products. They are sticking with zero-waste products as best they can because, in Aliyah’s words, “I think people are becoming more aware that we need the Earth more than it needs us.”

As for bigger businesses, Aliyah (and many others) hopes to see initiative from large corporations to invest specifically in reusable PPEs, since they can afford to fund the research and buy the materials. But convincing them to make the transition to more eco-friendly operations may be difficult. She observed,

“Everyone’s in such a hurry to get back to operations. [….] It’s becoming an economical concern rather than a health concern for a lot of businesses.”

Chiara Manuel is the proprietor of Knitty Gritty. She and her team of knitting kumares create scarves, bags, scrubbie sheets, and other crafts out of yarn and jute. Before the ECQ, they already had a solid set of zero-waste practices in place. They produce goods only when they have orders to avoid creating surplus. Their packaging uses only paper, and most of their advertising is either online or by word-of-mouth – no waste-generating collaterals like flyers or brochures. (Photos from Knitty Gritty by Chiara Instagram)

Sadly, with the arrival of COVID-19 in the Philippines, Chiara and her team decided to temporarily stop producing items so that they wouldn’t have to ship anything and potentially expose delivery personnel to the virus. Many of their partner stores have also closed their shops for the time being.

However, the zero-waste lifestyle persists in her home. She says that the most waste-generating activity she does is food preparation, so to cut down on waste, she prepares as many of her meals as possible from scratch. This eliminates the need for canned goods and plastic-packed cold cuts. What little waste does get produced is properly segregated: vegetable peelings go into a worm bin, other biodegradable waste goes into an open compost pit, and any cans and bottles used are cleaned and collected. If there are seeds from the vegetables, Chiara saves them for her own use or to donate to farmers.

Maintaining these practices during ECQ has been challenging, especially with market hours being limited. Chiara has occasionally opted to support local food businesses when not preparing everything at home, and this entails receiving their products in disposable containers. With most zero-waste stores being closed, she has also had to buy some toiletries and pantry staples from grocery stores or sari-sari stores, both of which sell items in plastic packaging.

In our current circumstances, this was probably inevitable, but it’s no reason to give up completely. Chiara affirms that everyone, business owner or otherwise, should play a part in reducing the trash that we produce. I asked her, what about people who think that plastic products are the only safe option? She said,

We are only safe if others are safe, too. So if we keep on generating waste because of our fear [of infection], we should think twice and remember our garbage collectors. The more we generate waste, the more we expose them to possible viruses, and it won’t be long until a virus will reach us.”

To find out more about Berde 4 Mama, check them out on Facebook and Instagram, or visit their online store. Knitty Gritty by Chiara is on Facebook and Instagram too, and has been featured on Pambansang Almusal.

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