The other day, I was cycling to work when the passenger of a van in front of me decided to discard a small plastic bag full of rubbish by simply throwing it out of his window and onto the street. Being the friendly chap that I am, I picked it up, went alongside the van with my bicycle, and handed the garbage back to him with a firm request to place it in a proper bin instead. I also managed to catch the moment on video. And as flattering as everyone’s reaction is, the pollution problem in this country won’t be solved by one bloke on a bike. It will take all of us to make a difference.
The one little bag of trash I picked up and returned to its owner is only an infinitesimally small part of the estimated 2.7 million tons of plastic waste generated in this country every year—20% of which ends up in the oceans surrounding us, harming marine life and eventually ending up in our food chain. That’s on top of all the other waste we generate. Not only do we pollute the environment we live in with this, but we are also slowly poisoning ourselves as the trash comes back in the stomachs of the fish and the other animals we eat.
Other rubbish-related figures in the Philippines are also staggering. According to a report by an NGO called Gaia (presumably named after the Gaia hypothesis), around 48 million shopping bags are being used throughout this archipelago every day, adding up to a mind-bending 17.5 billion pieces a year. And that’s not counting the 16.5 billion smaller and thinner labo bags people often use as well as the incredible 59.7 billion sachets of beauty products, detergents and other single-use stuff we consume annually. Even if the laws in place to protect the environment worked correctly (of course they don’t), this is way more than any barangay or city government could ever handle.
The pollution problem in this country won’t be solved by one bloke on a bicycle. It will take all of us to make a difference
Note that we haven’t even touched on any ground and air pollution caused by cars, motorbikes, jeepneys and trucks. To make a significant reduction in the amount of waste and pollution we produce every year, all of us have to take action—and this doesn’t have to mean heading down to Manila and spending days cleaning up the bay (although why not?). We can start right on our doorstep and with one hard look in the mirror. We can also make an impact by paying more attention to the immediate world around us, the small patch on this planet where even seemingly inconsequential actions can add up to something big if enough individuals do it.
Some have mentioned that it’s embarrassing to see a foreigner doing this while Filipinos keep polluting their own territory, but to be honest, it really doesn’t matter where you’re from. The ‘foreigner’ factor no doubt helped the video go viral, but humans either pollute or clean up regardless of the passport that is in their pocket. Trash doesn’t care about anyone’s citizenship, but it harms all of us, so let’s all try and do something about it. There are simple things we can do, such as the #Take3ForTheSea initiative that simply calls on everyone to pick up three pieces of garbage every day, no matter where we are (on the beach, outside the office or even in the parking lot).
Or, if you have a bit more time and maybe some friends to come along, try a #TrashTag challenge. This amazing activity has yielded massive results and cleaned up many places. Then you could also try and avoid buying polluting products in the first place, and evaluate the way you get around. In a nutshell: Don’t just look at people changing things—be part of the change.