Going zero waste during a pandemic? These advocates say it’s possible

Samantha Bagayas
Going zero waste during a pandemic? These advocates say it’s possible
While it may seem hard, environmental advocates say people can lessen the waste they produce daily even during the coronavirus pandemic

MANILA, Philippines – Do you want to try going zero waste during the coronavirus outbreak?

While it might sound difficult at first, environmental advocates shared that people can actually do their part in helping the environment by lessening the waste they produce daily.

In a webinar led by Rappler’s civic engagement arm MovePH, Manila Grows Food founder Monique Obligacion, Buhay Zero Waste administrator Meah Ang See, and Oceana campaign associate Coleen Salamat tackled the importance of waste management on Earth Day, April 22.

This year’s Earth Day comes at a time when the world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and an environmental crisis.

The United Nations Environment Programme has noted that the pandemic is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of humans and the planet in the face of global threats.

Going zero waste has become one of the efforts to lessen plastic pollution and harm to the environment all over the world. (READ: How going zero waste is addressing PH’s plastic problem)

During a health crisis though, how can one do that?

See shared that it could start with wearing a reusable cloth mask instead of a disposable one. Wearing a reusable cloth mask, alongside the practice of physical distancing, can ensure adequate protection from the virus, while solving the problem of the disposal of potentially infectious waste at home.

This does not apply to frontliners dealing with coronavirus patients though, as they often have to use disposable personal protective equipment to avoid infection.

“There is no choice on that end, [but] we don’t beat ourselves up about it because waste does not trump life,” See said.

Going zero waste 

Beyond choosing a reusable face mask, there are many ways that people can start adopting zero-waste habits during the outbreak.

Obligacion pointed out that at the core of the zero-waste lifestyle is ensuring nothing is wasted. This can be done by going beyond mere segregation and following the 5 Rs method: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot. (READ: TIPS: How to stay sustainable during coronavirus pandemic)

“It’s doable in the city…. Zero waste is a personal practice. Everyone has their own way, it’s a journey to get there,” she said.

During the pandemic, people might feel more inclined to purchase items and food packaged in single-use plastic, thinking it would offer added protection from the virus.

But Marilen Balolong, a microbiologist and scientist at the University of the Philippines Manila, has said that there is a low risk of contracting the virus when touching groceries.

To minimize waste, Obligacion said people can try buying items without single-use packaging instead, as they can always disinfect or clean the items before putting them in storage.

See also suggested bringing reusable plastic containers to public markets or supermarkets to store meat and avoid single-use packaging. This could especially help people minimize their waste when buying food and other essentials.

People can also try buying at public markets and from local vendors and initiatives bridging struggling farmers to consumers, so they have more control over how their items will be packaged.

“We still try and find ways during this pandemic to live with as little waste as possible. It’s not about throwing out waste. The mindset is I don’t bring waste [to] my household in the first place,” See said.

There are many ways as well to reduce waste that go beyond avoiding plastic.

Simple examples are making things from scratch, maximizing what you have at home, disconnecting appliances when not in use, planting your own food, and composting waste.

“We keep talking about waste in terms of waste that actually goes through landfills –tangible waste like plastic…. Waste is a lot more than plastic. That’s why when we translate [zero waste] into Tagalog, it’s walang sayang, not walang plastic (it’s no waste, not no plastic),” Obligacion said.

People can also try urban gardening, especially now that people can easily get more information online or join online communities like Manila Grows Food for some guidance.

Obligacion recommends starting with leafy greens and herbs, and even growing stuff from food scraps such as green onions and basil.

Going back to our roots 

One tip that See personally follows to go zero waste is to recall what her grandparents did before single-use items such as toilet paper were rampant.

“My children will always ask their grandmother…’Lola, when you were a kid, what did you do when you didn’t have this?’ And that’s how they get their tips on the zero-waste alternatives,” See said.

“It’s really going back to a mentality of [how] our grandparents lived without producing all of this single-use waste. If they can do it then, we can also do it now.”

This tip has made it easier for See to figure out what to refuse and reuse, which could be as simple as taking old shirts and turning them into makeshift towels.

“Part of the 5 Rs, the first one is to refuse…. So it’s not as if okay, I want to move into a zero-waste lifestyle, I want to have reusable items. It doesn’t mean you buy because that’s also increasing your consumption. You find things in your house and use all of that,” she said.

Obligacion pointed out that the Filipino culture is zero waste in nature. For instance, using a tabo or dipper instead of toilet paper is commonly practiced across households in the country.

Some Filipinos might even commonly cut their toothpaste packaging in half to scrape off what’s left.

See clarified that while people think a zero-waste lifestyle is expensive, it’s actually a way to save money since it emphasizes maximizing what you already have and refusing what you don’t need.

These little changes, while they seem small, could make a difference if more and more people do it.

“But if you can imagine a thousand people in a single community doing exactly the same thing, that’s where systemic change will start to happen,” she said. – Rappler.com

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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.