Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Plastic, policies, and politics

HAS the world truly awakened to the reality of plastic suffocating our natural resources and threatening our food security?

In the past two months, governments and countries have celebrated numerous environmental events and launched campaigns with themes focused on reducing plastic pollution.

Although movements for zero-waste or plastic-free living have been born long before, discussions on reducing plastic waste seem to recently have taken its place in mainstream consciousness. There seems to be a momentum for people advocating against single-use plastic.

But as politicians point out, any move to regulate or ban plastic use is seen as inconvenient for the majority of the voting population and key economic drivers.

Politicians who support plastic regulation policies see that in their travels to other cities around the world, they know that a society free from single-use plastic is possible and more sustainable, but at the same time, they cannot implement plastic regulation in their hometowns because they will anger voters in wet markets and the business sector

Not only will vendors and business owners find it inconvenient to dispense products and complain about lack of alternatives, but buyers are also burdened.

It is a true challenge in the game of politics and policies, amidst varying agenda which I do not desire to dichotomize or divide between black or white, good or evil.

Plastic does provide myriads of benefits to modern living, and our species may not be able to be totally free from it.

Our problems with plastic, or problems with people who think plastic is a problem, form complex connections to other issues like climate change (especially denial of it), exploitation of nonrenewable resources, income inequality, food security, minimum living wages, the perception of advocates being “privileged,” and many more. What is obvious is it is not merely a question of whether the plastic is harmful to the environment.

This is, of course, hard and sad to realize. There are many of us who already know that in the long run, we need to find a way to curb our dependence on this unnatural material, but we encounter policy-makers who would say: “How many of you are registered voters? You make a lot of noise, you want the plastic to be banned because you have the education and the opportunity to think about it – but what about those whose only concern is bringing food home to the table?” And this: “If we don’t get voted to our positions because we anger the masses for legislating policies that burden them, how can we continue supporting the movement for conservation and sustainability?”

When Senator Risa Hontiveros filed a bill to ban plastic straws and stirrers, considering that she is already a controversial opposition senator, there is no shortage of mockery and defamations in social media calling her “bobo” (stupid) for even thinking of such a thing. When a Plastic Regulation Ordinance in Bacolod City was being debated in the council, the politicians who supported it suffered a loss of votes from influential industry leaders down to the regular customers of public markets.

This is a call for us to look deeply into our community, yet not dwell in theoretical discussions from our “high chairs” – we need to get our hands dirty. There is still a majority of our fellow citizens who do not see plastic (our abuse of it or overdependence on it) as a threat. We need to ask why.

We need to emphatize and we need to be inclusive in our quest for solutions. We need to listen and respond with compassion.

At the end of June, about 50 people from different backgrounds gathered in Danjugan Island for a Design Thinking Workshop to innovate Information, Education, Communication (IEC) strategies for better solid waste management practices in Bacolod, Cauayan, Sipalay, Hinoba-an, Basay, Bayawan, Sta. Catalina and Siaton.

In the group were solid waste management division heads, environment management specialists, public school teachers, visual artists, musicians, scientists, biologists, local government personnel, barangay officials, Sangguniang Kabataan or youth representatives, students, advocates, community development workers and livelihood development consultants. Their mission was to prototype a Mobile Museum that will use a sensory approach to allow more people to realize that plastic is a threat and needs to be reduced or diverted. This Mobile Museum will be deployed from one barangay to another, targeting to raise awareness and support (more than compliance) to solid waste management in the barangay level.

In the process of design thinking, the first stage is to emphatize. This is a powerful action because it is necessary to hear out all stakeholders and acknowledge their perspectives as valid. What I witnessed in that workshop was an unraveling of possibilities when we listen to each other.

Sometimes we debate, but we all agree that we need food to eat and a healthy planet to sustain us. We also agree that we need to come together as a community to ensure these.

Last Saturday, a SweepWalk gathered more than 500 people that walked while picking up trash along Lacson Street from 21st to SM City Bacolod. It was one way to engage more citizens in the discussions and actions for better solid waste management in the city.

Perhaps this is still a low number to make a statement that enough citizens care. Perhaps the day after the SweepWalk, trash continued to flow down the street and waterways. But did we make a difference? We always say that the priority is for the community to gather and be physically present, to see with our own eyes how to collectively participate in reducing or diverting waste from our schools, offices and households, and to realize what work needs to be done to make concrete progress to curb plastic pollution.

I believe we make a difference in every small action we make. We will keep the momentum. We will keep collaborating and designing for strategies, alternatives, campaigns and policies. The world will keep awakening.


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