Implementing Zero Waste: Challenging But Doable

By Sherma E. Benosa

As the world scrambles to solve the plastic waste crisis, two Asian cities stand tall for having made huge strides not only in waste management but also in waste reduction.

Trivandrum City in Kerala, India, and the City of San Fernando in Pampanga, Philippines, are hailed as Zero Waste model communities with their successful implementation of Zero Waste programs: compliance rate is high, so is their diversion rate from landfill.

But not too long ago, these cities were on the brink of a waste crisis. Landfills and dumpsites were filling up in their communities. Trash littered streets and clogged waterways. The problem was so huge that incineration was even considered as an option.

But instead of taking a disastrous step toward building waste incineration facilities, leaders of these model cities turned to more sustainable solutions. They partnered with non-government organizations (NGOs) which guided them in implementing Zero Waste programs.

Today, these cities are proof that indeed, Zero Waste is not only possible; it is the way.

Changing the People’s Mindset

With systems and policies already in place, implementing Zero Waste in both cities now seem less challenging. But leaders of these cities say that the road to get to that point was an uphill climb.

“We met numerous challenges, especially at the start,” shared Dr. K. Vasuki, Director of the Suchitwa Mission, an organization of the Government of Kerala responsible for evolving implementation strategy and providing technical inputs for sanitation and waste management projects.

“When I was new in the mission, there was no clear [waste management] strategy. There were few learning models but no clear strategy. The idea at the time was to move toward incineration. People did not have faith in the government. For the first six months, we did not even have a complete idea on how to go about it,” she said.

Dr. K. Vasuki of the Suchitwa Mission, Kerala, India. Photo by Theeban Gunasekaran of Consumers Association of Penang.

To understand the problem, they partnered with Thanal, a public interest research, advocacy, and education organization based in Trivandrum with focus on environmental health and justice.

“We felt it was crucial to showcase models to demonstrate that Zero Waste works. But the mission only has an advisory role. We do not implement projects,” Dr. Vasuki shared. “We invited people to implement, but there were no takers to the idea. There was no place to demonstrate.”

According to Dr. Vasuki, it was a big challenge to convince people that doing away without disposables is doable. “People were resistant and critical about it. They thought it was impossible, impractical, and just not doable. So, we had to demonstrate that it was possible,” she said.

They partnered with the organizers of the 2015 National Games to implement a program they called Green Protocol. The aim was to reduce waste generation by, among others, banning the use of disposables in all sporting venues. They encouraged the use of reusable tableware and tumblers. With the help of 700 volunteers, the initiative prevented the generation of 120 metric tonnes of disposable waste.

With the successful implementation of Green Protocol at the event, people started believing that perhaps doing away with disposables was possible, but they were still not convinced it could be replicated.

This, according to Vasuki, challenged them to up their game. They built more models and strengthened their education campaign. They invited various segments of the society to take part in the initiative.

“We left no stones unturned. We approached every possible segment of the society—the schools, the church, the businesses… We convinced people that waste is everybody’s responsibility. We started the campaign, “My Waste, My Responsibility.”

Under the campaign, households were to manage their organic waste. “In Kerala, our biodegradable waste is 40 to 60 percent; because it is now managed at home, we are not at all concerned with this waste stream. Biodegradable waste is not a threat; it is a resource and is easy to compost at home. If we manage biodegradable waste, we have addressed a big part of the problem,” she shared.

Today, the Green Protocol has become embedded in the people’s lifestyle, penetrating a great traction of the society.

Strict Law Enforcement

The Philippines, meanwhile, has a national law called the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act which decentralizes waste management down to the smallest unit of government: the barangay (village). The law requires at-source waste segregation, daily door-to-door segregated waste collection, and building of materials recovery facilities (MRF) for composting of organics and temporary storage of other waste.

While the national law is good on paper, many cities, including San Fernando back then, have a hard time complying with the law.

“There was resistance among heads of the barangays in implementing the law,” shared Benedict Jasper Lagman, City Councilor of San Fernando. “They feared that if they would strictly implement it, they would turn away the voters.”

But Mother Earth Foundation (MEF), a Philippine-based NGO helping local government units in implementing Zero Waste, was able to successfully convince then-mayor Oscar Rodriguez that Zero Waste was the way to go.

“So we implemented it,” Lagman said, adding that they were met with resistance when they started requiring households to segregate their waste.

Benedict Jasper Lagman, Councilor, City of San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines. Photo by Eidyl Khate Nolasco of Potrero United Youth Organization.

Assisted by MEF and armed with MEF’s 10 Steps to Implementing Zero Waste Program in the Community, the city persevered. They conducted baselining, multi-stakeholder consultation, intensive house-to-house information and education campaigns, dry-run and eventually full implementation of daily door-to-door segregated waste collection. The city also gave grants to barangays to construct MRFs, and provided every barangay four tri-bikes to be used for waste collection.

Soon, the people not only became used to segregating their waste but also started embracing the program, having seen its benefits: reduced waste, resulting in huge savings from hauling and transport and tipping fees and jobs generated for waste workers.

“Instead of losing votes, elected officials who promoted the program actually had more votes the next election,” Lagman said. Among them was Lagman himself. Then a neophyte politician, Lagman was at the bottom of the winning councilors on his first term. When he sought re-election, he was at the top.

Following the successful implementation of their waste management program in San Fernando, Lagman authored an ordinance banning the production, distribution and use of single-use plastic bags in the city, a measure that pitted him against local businesses who thought that the ordinance would be detrimental to their business.

“Nine thousand businesses including multinationals were to be affected by the ordinance, so we engaged with them,” Lagman said.

Eventually, a compromise was arrived at. “We agreed to stagger the implementation. We did baby steps. We educated people on radio and TV. We started with Plastic-free Friday. Then, for the first three months, we banned the use of polystyrene as packaging of food product. Finally, in 2015, we totally banned the use of plastic bags. Now, 85% of the citizen are obeying the rules,” he said.

Like Dr. Vasuki, Lagman underscored the importance of political will and collaboration in implementing a crucial program like Zero Waste.

“There is no perfect law, but through the strong partnership of the government, NGOs, and the private sectors and the strong participation of the community, we were able to balance the economic progress and environmental sustainability for the benefit of the generations to come,” he said. “When the people see the importance of the program, they follow,” he added.

Dr. Vasuki agreed. “Changing people’s behavior is a slow process. We have to accept that. We have to be persistent. But what I learned is that, when we showcase models and make people understand the benefits of the program, they support it. People do change,” she said.

Sherma E. Benosa is the Communications Officer of GAIA Asia Pacific.

This article appears on the first issue of Waste Not Asia, the official publication of GAIA Asia Pacific. 
(Waste Not Asia, Vol. 1, Issue 1, January to March 2018. pp. 11-14).