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Trashing Paradise: The Case of the Philippines

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A guest blog by Andrew Wynne

An island archipelago nation laying in the western Pacific Ocean, the Philippines is commonly known for its idyllic beaches, rugged volcanic interior, routine natural disasters, and amicable people. But perhaps less known is the battle against solid waste that is currently enveloping the country. I spent two and a half years on the front lines of this battle as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and can attest to what a study published just last week in the respected journal Science found; the Philippines, along with a small number of other developing countries, is a major vector for plastics and other debris flowing into the global ocean.

With the vast majority of the population and economy tied to the coastline, managing solid waste is exasperating already stressed resources and forcing individuals into economically inefficient ways of making a living that strain the coastal environment. In addition, the Philippines’ location in the western Pacific Ocean likely leads to the transportation of waste around the globe, thereby affecting everyone from local barangays to American coastal cities.

The fundamental issue is how to solve this large and growing problem on land, and in doing so, protect the ocean from the harm that debris causes. The Philippine government has adopted a number of laws needed to help mitigate solid waste.  The problem is these laws and product bans don’t work well if community members don’t understand the consequences of their actions or know why these policies were designed. This lack of awareness about solid waste and its effects on local waterways and the ocean is ultimately crippling the Philippines’ national process to confront the problem. To stem it nationwide, a concerted effort is needed from the ground-up, one that actively involves community members in the discussion.

I recently returned from Tabaco City, Albay, a port city in Southern Luzon facing the Pacific, where I was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer working on coastal resource management. After seeking input from local leaders and experts, I worked with Bicol University Tabaco Campus (BUTC) and Dean Plutomeo Nieves to develop and launch the Save the Rivers, Save the Sea Program.

Begun in January 2014, this three-year program has been using a participatory, community-based approach to address solid waste management, improve river water and habitat sustainability, and thereby protect our ocean. Local students and youth representatives are both the facilitators and target audience; the program seeks to empower them to initiate action, repair existing degradation, and be leaders in sustaining their local ecosystems for future generations.

Thus far, 36 BUTC students have facilitated a community needs assessment amongst almost 300 local households. The students interviewed residents and sought information related to solid waste management practices, community involvement, and river usage. River water quality testing and cleanup events are ongoing, and future program activities will include educational campaigns to inform and educate the community and the establishment of a Bantay Ilog, or “river watch team.”  With this groundwork in place, the Save the Rivers, Save the Sea Program hopes to facilitate the co-management efforts needed for future urban river sustainability and solid waste management in Tabaco City.

With proactive national and provincial policies, local awareness and activism, and financial resources to build a foundation of leadership, we can take the next step in stemming the flow of debris in the rivers and coastal environment of the Philippines.  This will be one small step in solving the global problem of plastics pollution in the ocean identified last week in Science. While it is troubling that the scientists found that the Philippines is a major source of ocean trash, efforts such as the Save the Rivers, Save the Sea Program can be a model for how other local communities can contribute to a global effort to protect the oceans from the threat of land-based debris.

About Andrew Wynne

Andrew Wynne is a graduate student in Environmental Studies at the University of Charleston, South Carolina and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. He served in the Philippines (2012-2014) as a Coastal Resource Management Advisor, and hopes to continue to educate and inspire others to create healthy coastal environments. A SCUBA diver and former college athlete, Andrew lives an active lifestyle fueled by travel and exploration, but never strays too far from the water.

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