Meet Carmela: A young environmental activist in the Philippines takes on ocean plastic pollution
Cross-posted from USAID Medium blog
Asthe sun rises over Cauayan, a city in the Philippines, 22-year-old Carmela Ellaga grabs her bag and slips out of the house. Walking along the serene coastline to her project site, she looks out over the ocean that she is so passionate about protecting.
Growing up in a small coastal village, Carmela saw how climate change and plastic pollution had a devastating impact on the local fish populations and reefs.
“Fishing is the main source of livelihood here,” Carmela said. “If fisherfolk can’t go out to fish, they have no income.”
When Carmela was young, she often heard stories of the ocean being rich with fish, manta rays, and sea turtles. The vibrant marine life provided food and a source of livelihood for her family. As she grew up, however, those stories no longer matched the current reality. Rather than speaking of abundance and prosperity, fisherfolk in the community expressed fear about declining catches and rising sea levels.
“Now, they spend more time fishing and catch less fish,” Carmela explained. “We’re also really affected by typhoons and rising sea levels.”
When she was 15, Carmela attended an environmental conservation camp at Danjugan island, a solar-powered wildlife sanctuary a short boat ride from her village. During the camp, she learned about USAID’s partnership with the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. (PRRCFI) to protect the environment.
“My passion was really awakened. We learned about climate change and environmental issues in the community, and we learned practical skills like fish identification, coral identification, snorkeling, and skin diving,” she said.
After high school, Carmela pursued a degree as a fisheries technologist, while also working with USAID and PRRCFI on the Municipal Waste Recycling Program, USAID’s first program designed to address land-based sources of ocean plastic pollution. The Philippines is one of the world’s largest marine plastic polluters, contributing several hundred thousand metric tons of marine plastic annually.
As a community facilitator, Carmela helped local convenience stores reduce single-use plastics, such as individual packets of shampoo, coffee, and laundry detergent, of which the Philippines consumes roughly 60 billion per year. These Wala Usik, or “Zero Waste,” convenience stores let customers fill reusable containers from large dispensers instead of buying items in single-use plastic packaging, giving them the affordability and flexibility of individual portions without the plastic waste. After just seven months, this program reduced the sale of single-use plastics by more than 45,000 pieces.
This success of this zero-waste model inspired private sector partners to join the fight for cleaner oceans. Nestle supplied branded refilling dispensers to address consumer brand preferences, and another private sector partner provided reusable bottles, water refilling stations, and waste segregation bins at the month-long Masskara Festival. Most recently, USAID and PRRCFI partnered with SM Supermall, one of the largest mall chains in the Philippines, to distribute more than 1,000 reusable cloth bags and encourage customers to reduce their plastic consumption.
In addition to working with local stores and private sector partners to reduce ocean plastic pollution, USAID helped facilitate coastal cleanups and deploy community education tools like Fishbolan, a mobile museum and food cart designed to raise awareness about how ocean plastic pollution affects food security, public health, and livelihoods.
“It feels great to be doing this kind of work in my own community. These projects are helping my own people and inspiring other younger kids to be involved in science and conservation,” said Carmela.
These initiatives have had a ripple effect across Carmela’s province. Thanks to USAID and PRRCFI’s advocacies and community education initiatives, some local high schools have stopped using single-use plastics in their cafeterias, and local governments are mobilizing additional activities and investments to reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean.
PRRCFI Executive Director Dave Albao explained that plastic pollution is both a symptom of the climate crisis and a cause of further environmental damage.
“Our dependence on plastic represents the consumerism that drives greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “When plastic goes into the ocean, it further degrades the environment that is already battling the effects of climate change, making it harder for the reef to recover and harder for fisherfolk to keep their livelihoods.”
USAID helps combat these dual threats by partnering with local organizations and the Philippine government to protect the Philippines’ natural resources, promote sustainable fishing practices, and reduce plastic pollution. Since 2018, USAID has helped protect 1.2 million hectares of oceans in the Philippines, an area about 10 times the size of Los Angeles. USAID also recently awarded five new grants to fight ocean plastic pollution in the Philippines through its Clean Cities, Blue Ocean program.
A 2016 World Economic Forum report showed that, on the current track, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. But Carmela and her team are determined to change this trajectory.
“We only have one earth,” Carmela said. “This is our home, and we need to protect it.”
“My contribution may be small,” Carmela said, “but if we all refuse plastics and make sure our products are responsibly sourced, then we can have a big impact on protecting our planet. It is my vision that all people, governments, organizations, and communities will work hand-in-hand for a sustainable future.”