How an online community encourages Filipinos to try ‘buhay zero-waste’

Samantha Bagayas
Going zero-waste might seem intimidating. But a blossoming online community in the Philippines will tell you that your zero-waste journey can start with the little things and the mini wins.

MANILA, Philippines– What does it take to live zero-waste?

Many people online will tell you that it can start with the little things: using tumblers instead of plastic cups, bringing your own baonan with utensils, ditching plastic straws, and simply just refusing single-use plastic. (READ: Zero waste basics: Mess kits will help save the world)

Nestled in a corner of Facebook is Buhay Zero Waste, a Filipino community trying to reduce the amount of waste they produce in their day-to-day living. A quick scroll on the Facebook group shows Filipinos working together to go zero waste, as they celebrate their little wins throughout the week, turn to each other for suggestions and alternatives, and share their own efforts to experiment and reuse items in their household.

It takes a village to make a big lifestyle change, and Buhay Zero Waste welcomes anyone at any point in their zero-waste journey.

What started out as a handful of members in March 2017 has now ballooned to more than 44,000 members as of September 2019.

Monique Obligacion, one of the pioneer administrators of Buhay Zero Waste, has witnessed its baby steps up to the thriving community that it is now.

“We were the first bunch of administrators. Back then, it was just us talking, posting content. The very first post then were composting, ecobricking. People didn’t even know what these things were before,” she said.

“As admins, we got together and then we started talking about plans for the group. And it was just let’s keep the tone like this. Let’s make sure people don’t bash each other or criticize each other for whatever they’re doing…Only you can gauge where you are in terms of zero waste. I always say there are no standards or merits for anybody to assess anyone else,” Obligacion shared.

As a staunch advocate of zero waste and low-impact living, Obligacion has founded Manila Grows Food, a support group and online resource for urban gardening and composting. She’s also been practicing zero-waste with her partner Rocco Mapua since 2016, and documenting their life without trash cans in their blog Druid Things.

The 5Rs

The zero-waste lifestyle mainly follows the 5Rs method: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot.

Obligacion pointed out that going zero-waste is a journey, and everyone goes at their own pace.

Some people may be more advanced in composting and gardening but have done nothing about plastic disposal. Others may still continue buying more items with the promise of one day reusing or recycling them instead of making do with what they already have. (READ: Rappler pushes for responsible use of plastic with #ManyWaysToZeroWaste movement)

“We just keep on educating and educating. And as a group, we also grew,” she shared.

Planting the seed

Managing the whole 44,000-strong community are 11 administrators and moderators. Even with such a huge community, the administrators and moderators of Buhay Zero Waste make sure that discussions within the group remain open by curating the feed with posts that have substantial captions that can help the members grow. 

Although there are a lot of viral posts and videos about going zero waste, the administrators and moderators of Buhay Zero Waste ask the community to add more to the discussion, especially in putting it in the Philippine context. Members are also urged to keep the posts centered on zero-waste to respect everyone’s own set of beliefs, lifestyles and advocacies.

“Our rules, they also evolve, but the whole relatability, it’s something actually that we impose earlier on…Everybody has to talk about their experience. Awareness is nothing if you’re not doing anything anyway. It has to be actionable,” Obligacion said. 

Interested members also have to answer a set of questions before joining the group to ensure there won’t be trolls or spam within the community. 

As the group grows, members of the community have gotten more proactive in facilitating discussions and educating people about going zero-waste, with some of them becoming official moderators of Buhay Zero Waste later on.

“Before, it was mostly me and the admins commenting on people’s posts…. But now, the people we educated two years ago are now educating the new members of the group. And that’s how we get moderators,” said Obligacion.

Moderators are in charge of approving membership requests and facilitating discussions when needed, while administrators lead the direction of the group and handle the approval of pending posts in the community.

RECYCLABLES. These are just some of the items that Peachy Alberto and other members of the environmental committee in her community got from their recyclables day. The effort was also a fundraiser for the environmental committee's future projects. Photo from Peachy Alberto

Sowing the seeds

Eventually, Buhay Zero Waste has inspired other members of the community to take their advocacy offline and share it to their own spheres of influence. (READ: A zero waste lifestyle: How have other people done it?)

One of these is 53-year-old Peachy Alberto, a chef by profession who struggled with how to prepare her dishes without using packaged products.

She first started out her journey by ecobricking, which is stuffing plastic into plastic bottles so it can be used to replace hollow blocks for building walls. (WATCH: How to repurpose plastic bottles into ecobricks)

Learning from her nieces in Sydney, she later began using her own produce bags and reusable containers for her groceries, and joined the Buhay Zero Waste Group some time in 2018.

“It popped up as a ‘suggested group’ to join. Maybe because I was already posting stuff regarding plastics at that time. I clicked and joined immediately. I wanted to learn other ways on how I could help fight global warming and share my own do’s and don’ts,” Alberto shared.

Having started her zero-waste journey in 2016, Alberto saw the thriving community in Buhay Zero Waste and decided to set up initiatives in her area too.

In her community at the Pacific Village of Muntinlupa City, Alberto shared guidelines on waste segregation, and suggestions on how to reduce single-use plastics, which triggered the creation of an environmental committee for which she was made chairman.

There’s now a stricter form of waste segregation in her community, as well as a recommended zero-waste guide for future renters of the clubhouse, which will be attached to the rental contract.

“We are hoping this can become a community project and turn our village into a green village,” added Alberto.

Bridging the gap from online to offline, Alberto also invited Buhay Zero Waste to give a talk on the climate crisis during an Awareness Day that she organized in her community in the hopes of setting the tone to learn more about proper waste segregation, composting, and urban gardening. The next event in her community is a learning day tackling trash segregation and bokashi composting with Obligacion and Mapua, with further talks on why these efforts are important.

TAKING IT OFFLINE. Peachy Alberto takes a photo with Monique Obligacion and Rocco Mapua, administrator and moderator of Buhay Zero Waste respectively, after an awareness day tackled the climate crisis and what people can do to help in the community through a series of talks. Photo from Peachy Alberto

Having seen the ripples of change in her community, Alberto shared how the online community of Buhay Zero Waste made her see that the lifestyle is possible.

“The [Buhay Zero Waste] community conveys it can be done. All one needs to do is to want to take the initiative to make a lifestyle change. It may not be very easy in the beginning.  But just as I am passionate about my food, I am passionate about nature and Mother Earth. And to be able to do something to preserve it, has become part of my lifestyle now,” she said.

AWARENESS. Peachy Alberto is among the lead organizers of the Awareness Day conducted in her community. Photo from Peachy Alberto

Always growing

Slowly, people in the community learn the little ways they can join in the zero-waste movement through the group.

“It’s gratifying because we see the growth of the members and of ourselves. We see them in the beginning where it’s just straws that they refuse, and now they eventually refuse the entire cup. The next thing you know, they’re bringing their own baonan,” Obligacion shared.

Those who want to try going zero-waste might be intimidated at first, and that’s okay. Obligacion recommends starting out with something small. It can be with a small habit that you can change, such as using a tumbler if you’re fond of buying milk tea or coffee. Buhay Zero Waste actually has a crowdsourced running list of establishments that allow people to use their tumblers instead of the store’s plastic cups.

“Start with something small and turn it into a habit. Look for ways, smaller ways to change and just keep going. The important thing, whatever you do, you get consistent with it…The journey is different for everybody. Other people can start with planting their own herbs so they don’t have to buy stuff wrapped in plastic; or skipping the grocery [store] and going to a palengke instead,” Obligacion said.

With Philippines being the third biggest source of plastic leaking into seas worldwide, everyone has a role to play in reducing the plastic they use everyday.  According to these advocates, learning more about how to lessen one’s waste or actually practicing the zero-waste lifestyle are just some concrete ways anyone can take to address this problem. (READ: How going zero waste is addressing PH’s plastic pollution)

For this thriving online community in the Philippines, what they hope to do is in the name: a life without waste or in Filipino, “Buhay zero-waste.” –

Samantha Bagayas

Samantha Bagayas is a community and civic engagement specialist under MovePH, Rappler's civic engagement arm. Aside from writing stories about movements and civic initiatives, she works with movers and campus journalists across the Philippines to amplify issues affecting their communities.