By Froilan Grate

Guimaras—that’s the name of the island  where I grew up. Located in Central Philippines, it is blessed with powdery white sand beaches, the sweetest mangoes, and some of the warmest people in the planet. I remember spending my childhood in the island—going on easy hikes and discovering hidden waterfalls and swimming holes, or exploring the surrounding smaller islands. Life was very simple then.

Froilan Grate (center) during a waste assessment and brand audit (WABA) in Quezon City, Philippines. Photo by Jes Aznar for NPR

About 18 years ago, I left the island to study in a university in Manila. I took the 19-hour boat ride, which took me from Iloilo to the pier in Manila Bay. To say that I was shocked with what I saw as we approached the pier would be an understatement—instead of the turquoise water that I was used to, the water was almost black. And instead of the colorful coral and fish, waste was floating around, most of it single-use plastic.

That first impression of Manila changed me. At that very instant, I suddenly missed home. But more than feeling homesick, I felt a deep sense of fear creeping into me—for what I saw could also happen to the island I call home. My strong sense of connection to the island, coupled with this fear of what the future holds, led me to actively pursue volunteer opportunities from environmental organizations while studying. And when I had the opportunity to work for one, it felt like a dream come true.

My first work was for a non-profit conducting training on environmental education. I had the best time working with teachers and students, and talking about the country’s amazing biodiversity and the need to protect it. This experience exposed me to the transformative power of education, especially as a tool to change people’s behavior towards the environment. Then and now, awareness is not the goal but rather a step towards meaningful action. My next job, at Mother Earth Foundation (MEF), gave me the opportunity to realize this.

At MEF, we worked with communities and cities to establish Zero Waste programs. Working with waste workers, community leaders, and local officials, we transformed waste dumps into communal parks. Through waste segregation, local composting, and recycling, communities and cities were able to reduce their waste by as much as 80%. This in turn provided better livelihoods for the waste pickers, reduced incidence of flooding and diseases, and saved cities millions of pesos on waste management costs.

But try as we might, we were still left with waste that was the beyond the capacity of the communities to manage—these 20-30% plastic waste that can neither be composted nor recycled. And a common question we had to deal with when we worked in the communities was, “why are you putting the responsibility of managing these wastes with us and not with the corporations who created them? Tell them to stop making it, and our waste problem is solved.” As a small NGO, it was a question we struggled to answer as well.

And that is the question that we are trying to answer now, in my current work for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, NGOs, and individuals in over 90 countries whose ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incineration. GAIA, together with Greenpeace and others, are core members of the Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) Movement .

In BFFP, we envision a future free from plastic pollution—and for that to happen we need to rethink the way we use plastic. Cities must implement Zero Waste, ensuring that all wastes are collected, and then compost the organics and recycle as much as possible. We must change our relationship with plastic, doing away with single-use products and disposable packaging through our individual actions and institutionalized as policy at the local, national, and global level. But most importantly, corporations must do their share in solving this problem.

That is why I welcome this opportunity to join the Rainbow Warrior. This journey is a great way for me to share what we have been saying for the longest time: the issue of plastic pollution might be very visible in the Philippines and other Asian countries, but the problem started somewhere else. It started in boardrooms of the top multinational companies who made the decision to dump products in single-use, non-recyclable packaging like sachets in places where there are no infrastructure to manage them. And I am tired of taking the blame for the consequences of these decisions.

Cities and communities working on Zero Waste are showing that solutions are already happening. Corporations must step up beyond their empty promises and meaningless recycling targets. It’s time for them to put their money where their mouth is. Today, I am joining Greenpeace to ship back the plastic monster that these corporations have created.

Froilan Grate is the Executive Director of GAIA Philippines.