Fighting plastics for a cause

Bryan Madera spent most of his time working on his computer. Last year, he decided to go on an indefinite sabbatical to do a volunteer-for-accommodation at a hostel situated along the famed Twin Beach in Barangay Bucana, El Nido. While he was stunned by the splendid seascape, it wasn’t the first thing that caught his attention when he set foot on the place.

“The hostel owner showed me around the community, and we arrived at the pile of plastic bottles tourism generated for one month,” he recounted over email, in time for the celebration of Ocean Month this May.

It had struck him that excessive solid waste generation from both local community and the tourists who come to spend a day in Twin Beach was a problem in the community.

For one who has a graduate school training on coastal resources management and a strong grassroots movement background, he was convinced not to let this problem take its course and cause irreversible damage to the environment in the long run.

“Back at the hostel, I started writing a concept note and doing research on how I can convince other business establishments to set up water refill stations as well,” he said.

For the 29-year old Ilonggo, it’s not enough to educate people to change their behavior towards the environment. He believes that solving any human-caused environmental problem requires giving people an alternative.

“Our environmental apathy can be traced back to the lack of knowledge of what are the possible impact we made or can do to our environment,” he argued.

“If we provide the knowledge, we also have to give practical solutions that can be integrated into our daily lives, something that people would do because they would also benefit from it.”

And this was when his battle against plastic bottles all started to take shape.

He, however, had to leave El Nido and move to Northern Mindanao for a volunteering opportunity. In July 2017, he went straight to Siargao Island where he piloted the Plastic Battle campaign in partnership with Siargao Environmental Awareness Movement and Save Philippine Seas.

“Although Plastic Battle was piloted in Siargao Island it was later on implemented in El Nido where the campaign was actually conceived,” he said.

Diving into battle

Plastic Battle is an initiative aims to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic bottles, sometimes referred to as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), at the source. The campaign particularly urges resorts, cafés, hostels, and restaurants to provide people the option to refill reusable bottles for a fee or for free.

“It is a response to the study showing that the Philippines ranks third in marine litter contribution globally, and to the prediction that there will more plastic than fish in the seas by 2050,” he said.

A study shows that more than 100 million PET bottles are produced daily globally but only one out of five of them gets recycled. “These plastic bottles will only start degrading into microplastics (extremely small pieces of plastic) in approximately 700 years,” he added.

So guess where the rest of these unrecycled plastic bottles finally end up aside from dumpsites? True, they eventually find their way into the oceans.

But the destructive impacts of plastic are not just confined to ruining the aesthetic value of our beaches and seas. Ultimately, at the very least, it could kill marine animals and even harm humans.

“Plastic that ends up in the ocean,” Madera said, “is a threat to marine animals by entangling them or blocking their digestive tract, and to human health by the entry of microplastics into the food chain.”

No retreat

Just like any other advocacy, carrying on the Plastic Battle campaign has never been easy. Along the way, he has to meet challenges head-on, which even more convince him that this cause is worth fighting for.

“One of the challenges I encountered was that a restaurant in El Nido does not serve service water and only sells bottled water to their customers,” he recalled.

“They declined to join and reasoned out, ‘We don’t have enough space to store water supply, and besides we use our filtered water to clean our vegetables.’ They said their deep well water although filtered is not safe for drinking.”

Although the human and environmental costs as reasons to ditch plastic bottles are quite compelling, he knew it from the very start that convincing people with fixed mindset could be this challenging.

But he continues campaigning, anyway. “You know, we can’t please everyone,” he consoled himself, “but at least we have other business partners in El Nido that provide service water.”

Pressing forward

In less than a year, the Plastic Battle campaign has reached over 60 member-establishments in tourism destinations, such as Puerto Princesa City, Coron, El Nido in Palawan, Boracay, Bohol, Cebu, Negros, Zambales and other key cities in Luzon and Mindanao.

We are happy whenever a business establishment commits to serve service water, to stop selling bottled water, and even tag us on their social media account signifying their commitment to using the reusable water bottle,” he said.

For tourists who are not familiar of the place and unaware of the availability of the refill stations, Plastic Battle mapped out refill stations in the Philippines and place it on an iOS app downloadable on Apple Store.

“This would cut down the plastic bottle waste produce in a destination island that is far away from the recycling system. And if you are traveling on a budget, refilling your reusable water bottle would save you money,” he said.

This year, the campaign targets to saturate top tourism destination Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro, as well as La Union and Baler, Aurora that both gain popularity among surfers and beachgoers. Meanwhile, interested establishments can also join the battle.

Madera said he is drafting an ordinance that would require businesses to serve clean and safe drinking water and encourages policymakers to adapt and refine it as they see fit for their respective localities.

“We need to promote the culture of water refilling and providing safe drinking service water to reduce our use of single-use plastic bottles that can end up in the ocean. If the community has this culture, then the tourists would also follow,” he added.

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