MANILA, Philippines — A lot of excesses can be excused by saying you only live once. But when it comes to plastic bottles, a husband and wife in Negros Occidental believe in a second lease on life.
In the coastal community of Binalbagan, a group of farmers collected and even paid for used plastic bottles, sachets, and bottle caps—trash that would otherwise be thrown on the streets.
Led by Checcs Osmeña-Orbida and her husband Jesus Orbida, the PeacePond Farmers Association wanted to show there was still value in what people threw away.
To help drive the point, their farm, the PeacePond, even has a single-storey building called the Plastic Bottle Learning Center. This was built in 2016 with walls made of more than 3,200 soft drink bottles.
But not everyone saw trash the way they did. Trash is trash. How could it be anything else?
“When we started, we didn’t have this. There were no products. So it’s hard to make people understand,” Checcs Orbida said in a Zoom interview with the Inquirer, showing samples of their products, like wallets made from plastic labels.
Since last year, PeacePond farmers have been turning plastic bottles and caps into chairs and other useful products through the Blastik Project —or Balik Plastic, which is currently funded by a grant from Coca-Cola Foundation Philippines Inc. (CCFPI).
Almost 100 pieces of soft drink plastic labels, for example, can be processed into a mini-bag for gadgets, according to their website. Interested buyers can inquire about other products made by the farmers through PeacePond’s official Facebook page.
Through CCFPI, PeacePond got recycling machines from the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation, Inc. (AIDFI), the nongovernmental organization in Bacolod that won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2011.
The proponents have been working together for years. Orbida and her husband started as volunteers in a potable water access project called the Agos Ram Pump, which also used the technology of AIDFI. They volunteered there for six years.
“We’re a very poor farmer’s association. We cannot afford projects like this. We really can’t. We don’t have the funds for that. That’s why we rely on [grants for] projects like this,” said Orbida, who manages the initiative.
The project currently has 24 farmers in charge of different parts of the process from collection to processing. They collect used plastic bottles from the local residents, paying either with cash or in-kind like a dishwashing liquid in a recycled bottle. So far, they have collected, processed and recycled a little more than 17 tons of bottles, bottle caps, sachets and plastic labels, CCFPI said in a statement last September.
Orbida said she was thankful for the grant, which would last from 2020 to 2023, noting they had been ignored by other organizations — and even laughed at — for their advocacies in waste management and organic farming. It was a job that led her to her current advocacy, after she had been tapped to do research and educational materials for the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.
“Little by little, it made sense because of the research I had to do. I was writing all these articles and manuals, and I realized this was one of the best advocacies one could have,” she said. She started at home by segregating trash. When she and her husband moved back to her hometown in 2003, she brought the advocacy with her.
The Orbida couple did not always work in the farm. They lived in Metro Manila for years, taking on different jobs in news and entertainment. When their son graduated from college and started having a life of his own, they left their hectic life in the city for a quieter life at PeacePond. Apart from proper waste management, the farm is being used for organic farming and ecotourism.
“Sometimes you run out of patience because it’s hard to have an advocacy when no one is listening,” said Orbida, who is now nearing her senior years. While by no means enough to address plastic pollution, the project is meant more to set an example for other communities to replicate.
World Without Waste
The amount of the grant for this article was not disclosed. CCFPI said the project had already been replicated in seven sites, including a community in Kabankalan, also in Negros Occidental. It is one of more than 40 “zero-waste” communities supported by CCFPI in the country.
CCFPI told the Inquirer in an email this month that interested communities would have to undergo training and pass an assessment. It added that they could also get an endorsement to purchase the recycling machines at a minimal cost compared to commercially available equivalents.
But the good intentions of people like PeacePond farmers need to be matched with the resources of big businesses like Coca-Cola, which itself is grappling with plastic waste challenges globally.
In 2018, the Coca-Cola Company, which has been in the business for more than a century now, launched its World Without Waste campaign. It had three goals: make 100 percent of its packaging recyclable globally by 2025; use at least 50-percent recycled material in its packaging by 2030; and collect and recycle a bottle or can for each one it sold by 2030.
Here in the Philippines, most plastic materials are meant for single use. In 2019, the country only recycled about 28 percent of its popular kinds of plastic or plastic resins, according to a Philippine market study released by the World Bank in 2021.
A plastic material value loss looks at the value lost when plastic is not recycled into the “most valuable recycled product” for the particular resin or when they are just thrown in landfills. According to the World Bank, assuming all key plastics are recycled, the Philippines can have a total material value of $1.1 billion a year. But the country only unlocks 22 percent of it, resulting in a potential material value loss of $790 to $890 million a year.
Where used bottles go
Coca-Cola Beverages Philippines, Inc. (CCBPI), the bottling arm of Coca-Cola, partnered with Indorama Ventures Packaging for a P2.3-billion recycling facility in Cavite, which had already been approved by the Board of Investments to qualify for tax breaks.
Called PETValue, the project is considered the largest, state-of-the-art, bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in the country. Coca-Cola wants to establish a circular economy for its packaging by collecting clear bottles made from PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, even those produced by other manufacturers.
CCBPI previously said construction of the facility in General Trias, Cavite, was expected to be completed in the fourth quarter of the year. CCBPI said it would deploy cutting-edge technologies to employ the “safest” and “most advanced” recycling process for plastic bottles made from PET material.
It is projected to process almost 2 billion pieces of plastic bottles a year, which means it will be recycling 30,000 metric tons of plastic bottles into 16,000 tons of recycled PET resin in a year.
It remains to be seen how the project would affect grants for smaller community projects like the Blastik Project. But if it’s up to Orbida, she wants to do it for 10 years, not just three.
“Even if [some] companies will have their own recycling facilities or recycling programs, there will still be those that don’t. What do we do about the rest of the plastic waste?” she quipped.
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