Eco-Warriors: From Waste Collectors to Community Leaders
Cross-posted from USAID Medium
Annually, the Philippines generates an estimated 2.7 million tons of plastic waste. Each day alone more than 163 million single-use plastic sachets (small, single-dose packaging) are used for many products — from instant coffee to washing detergent — a low-cost, convenient alternative to buying larger quantities.
In response to growing volumes of waste, women like Lydia Casiano, Roselyn Gomia, and Jailyn Danguen in Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan, have seen waste collection as an opportunity to earn additional income as they collect and sell plastic and other recyclable waste that would otherwise be landfilled or leak into the environment to local junk shops and other buyers.
But their jobs have now taken on greater significance. They have become essential service providers–a first line of defense against ocean plastic pollution.
[In the beginning], I resorted to this kind of job because of poverty — so my husband wasn’t the only breadwinner of my family. If we only depended on his income, we would not have enough money to support our growing family.Lydia
Globally, women make up a sizable portion of the informal waste sector. While their contributions are invaluable for the health of their communities and environments, this is often overlooked and many are stigmatized in their communities as unclean because of the work that they do.
Through Philippines-based social enterprise Project Zacchaeus (PZC) and its Eco-Kolek project, the USAID’s Clean Cities, Blue Ocean program is enabling local waste collectors to participate in programs that provide them opportunities to grow and use their voices, knowledge, and leadership skills to spread awareness of and champion sustainable waste management practices in their communities.
Project Zacchaeus strives to establish a safer, more efficient waste collection system in Puerto Princesa and is doing so by delivering training and resources to local informal waste collectors to improve their health, safety, and to help professionalize their essential work. While both women and men serve the community as waste collectors, many of the women in the community serve in leadership roles in the waste collectors’ organization and are the backbone of its efforts, performing much of the detail-oriented work such as cleaning and sorting the plastic that is so important to its ability to be recycled.
For Lydia, Roselyn, and Jailyn, waste collection began as a way to survive and support their families, but through the support of a local organization and USAID, they have found pride in their work, deeper community connection, and have become lauded Eco-Warriors.
More than a Waste Collector
Roselyn began waste picking when she was 15 years old. “My family would go to the coastline and pick plastics from the sand. We collected and sold them to a buyer who came to our community,” she explains.
Roselyn continues this work today, gathering waste that has been improperly disposed of from households around her community to earn extra income for her family.
“When Eco-Kolek came into our lives, we became aware of how important our roles were. We have learned discipline and patience with each other and how to segregate and sort the items we have collected,” says Roselyn.
In addition to waste picking, Roselyn manages bookkeeping for the Eco-Warrior organization and tends to her garden, where she grows vegetables to sell in the community. Roselyn is proud to have different ways to support her family and hopes that one day, “all plastic waste will be eliminated from our environment and recycled into new products so we can earn from the process and provide for our families.”
Being an Eco-Warrior is a great job and it really benefits us,” she explains. “The training has given us a lot of knowledge about garbage collection — we learned about laws that prohibit the burning of waste because it harms our atmosphere. We didn’t care about it before we knew the negative impact. Now, we are very aware of our responsibility to be good citizens in our community.Roselyn
Jailyn, a member of the Tagbanua tribe, one of the oldest Indigenous groups in the Philippines, works hard to balance being a wife, mother, and an Eco-Warrior.
“When I joined this program, I was happy because I knew it would help me earn more and provide for my daughter’s schooling,” she says. “I no longer have to depend on my husband’s income alone as a construction worker.”
Jailyn learned about waste collecting from her husband and his family. As she began noticing waste accumulating in their neighborhood, she decided to take up the work herself. “Waste has been a long-time dilemma in our city,” explains Jailyn. “It was so obvious in our towns. It really helps our environment when we collect plastic bottles.”
Jailyn’s single greatest goal is to provide for and raise her daughter to be a good citizen. “Although it seems like we are doing the dirtiest job on the planet, our hearts are genuine. I have great hopes for the future, especially when Eco-Kolek came into our lives. It enables us to unite and work together.”
I really want to be a good leader and for my fellow Eco-Warriors to also become changemakers so we can have a great community.Jailyn
Lydia worked to collect waste for many years, starting first with metals and switching to plastic collection as its selling value grew higher. Now, she serves as head of the Eco-Warriors’ community organization.
Lydia recounts seeing garbage in Puerto Princesa during her youth. “When I walked around town, I saw a lot of plastics being blown away. I felt ashamed to see the garbage problem in my city, like we were being left behind from other cities and provinces that have a cleaner, more organized system of collection,” she says. “I decided to participate in gathering plastics to help my country and community.”
Eco-Kolek has given me confidence, and now I feel that our waste pickers are safer in doing this kind of task.Lydia
About Clean Cities, Blue Ocean
USAID’s Clean Cities, Blue Ocean program works globally, in seven countries and over 25 cities, to advance locally-led waste management solutions — like these — that can stop the flow of ocean plastic pollution. Learn more at urban-links.org/ccbo.
About the Authors
Melinda Donnelly is a strategic communicator supporting USAID’s Clean Cities, Blue Ocean program. Georgia Hartman is a Gender and Environment Technical Advisor at the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Hub at USAID.