Garbage Nightmares: The Philippines

Kyoto Review

Forum on Garbage and Solid Waste Management, University of the Philippines, Diliman, March 4-8, 2002

This discussion was organized by the editors of the UP Forum, a popular monthly newspaper of the University of the Philippines community, to sustain public interest in two related issues. The first was the tragedy in Payatas village, where a mountain of garbage collapsed into a community located on the foot of the mountain. The second was the controversial decision of the Philippine courts to grant the Jancom Corporation the right to build an incinerator plant in Metropolitan Manila. This transcript was published in Filipino in the March 2002 issue of the UP Forum.


Juan Romeo Nereus Acosta—Representative, 1st District, Bukidnon; author of the Solid Waste Management Act and the Clean Air Act
Ms. Odette Alcantara—Founding member of Mother Earth, convenor of Artists for the Environment

Moderator: Mr. Ferdinand “Jun” Quicho, Jr.—Lecturer, College of Social Work and Community Development; member of the NGO Tanggol Kalikasan (Defending the Environment)


JUN Q: The Payatas tragedy happened on July 10, 2000, when many of our poorer countrymen living in the garbage dump died as mountains of garbage collapsed. Yet, it was not only the horrifying fate of the people there that was underscored by what happened in Payatas. Payatas also made us realize the seriousness of the garbage problem that Metropolitan Manila faces today. It has likewise gradually made us feel how much this is also a national problem. Tita [Auntie] Odette, your work has something to do with matters that we normally dispose of, but you refer to these as solid waste. Is there a difference between garbage and solid waste?

TITA ODETTE: We refer to the latter as waste management, or the appropriate disposal of these things in the right places to distinguish them from garbage. Solid waste management aims not to create garbage by placing things we dispose of in the right places. The former, on the other hand, is simply concerned with the question “What will we do with this garbage?”

JUN Q: You mean, the skin of a mango I peeled, for example, is not considered garbage?

TITA ODETTE: If you mix it with other things, then it becomes garbage, but if you dispose of it in the proper place, like returning it back to the soil then it is not since the mango peel will eventually become part of the soil again. This is what I mean by solid waste management.

JUN Q: Congressman Acosta, you pushed for the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act in Congress. Can you explain the important provisions of this law?

REP ACOSTA: Simply put, the Act localizes and makes the disposal of solid waste a community-based endeavor. The local community assumes the main responsibility for disposing of solid waste resources through the “three R” approach: reduce, re-use, and recycle. This is the essence of Republic Act 9003. Our view of solid waste management policy is based on an integrated ecological perspective that looks at the relationship of people and their lives and that of the environment as closely intertwined with each other. This is the spirit of Republic Act 9003 – an ecological approach to waste management.

JUN Q: Tita Odette, what do you think are the implications of the garbage issue if you take into consideration Congressman Acosta’s notion of the relationship between people and things they no longer have use for.

TITA ODETTE: The obvious effect would be economic. Congressman Acosta mentioned that [this lack of an ecological perspective] has led us to waste things that otherwise can continue to be useful. For example, if you improperly dispose of the mango peelings, that becomes garbage and you in a certain way waste something that could otherwise be of some use to us. But once you bury this, it becomes an element that can help enrich the soil, while preventing the inclusion of stuff like paper, cans, bottles, etc., which could be recycled and sold. But if you treat that same mango peeling as garbage, you also risk losing a potential livelihood and income source in the long run. Garbage brings us nothing but problems. Just look at those mountains of garbage that pile up in our communities: filthy, smelly, hosts to flies, cockroaches, rats, and various microbes, all of which can seriously affect our health and add to our expenses. And even if you do get well, you still end up going back to the same mountain and then getting sick again. And if you fail to seek treatment, then chances are you would die. That too would be another expense. Garbage is a bane to our existence. So if you mix disposal items that would only lead to garbage, and major inconvenience. So which would you choose, the bother or the benefits [of solid waste management]? What other argument can you raise against that?

JUN Q: Congressman Acosta, it does appear that the new law is quite progressive down to even the rules and regulations [of solid waste management]. The reality, however, is that there remain tons and tons of garbage out there. In Metro-Manila alone, we produce something like 6,500 metric tons of garbage everyday, suggesting that implementation of the law remains difficult. Why is that?

REP ACOSTA: There are a host of possible reasons apart from the lack of funds, which in a lot of cases is often invoked as the main reason. In my opinion, if we do not have the corresponding consciousness, perspective, and understanding that we have a responsibility towards the environment, towards the cleanliness of our surroundings, and the diversity of nature that gives life to us; if we do not have the corresponding education [and] information mechanism to help people to better understand their condition, there will be many other ways in which implementation of the law can be thwarted, no matter how well-written a law is. It is really up to people if they want to pursue what the law laid out. If the government, local officials, and the people decide to address this issue, and if people and communities work together, the structure is already there to regulate our actions and undertakings. So it is not simply a question of budget or the lethargy of our officials. There is something wrong with the system itself. The entire system. It’s like a body where some of its part is not functioning well.

JUN Q: As you very well know, Tita Odette, I can sense Congressman Acosta’s frustration. Let me ask you then ask you the same question: why the seeming difficulty in implementing the law?

TITA ODETTE: The Congressman is right. If people really do not want act on a problem, they can come up with many excuses, but if they do want to solve the problem, they can come up with many solutions. What Congressman Acosta said about education and a pro-environment consciousness is to the point: without these you will never understand the issue [and hence not act in support of it]. But there is also the law’s long and difficult language, something designed so that only lawyers can understand it! The implementing rules and regulations alone consist of 57 pages that took the Department of Environment and National Resources a year to formulate. What we really need is a clear-cut policy to segregate, compost, and recycle solid waste so as not to produce garbage. Why complicate what is really a simple process? Actually, there are already a lot of people who are engaged in solid waste management even before the law was passed. As the saying goes, the fact preceded the law. And in fact, there have been a number of success stories that served as an inspiration of sort to those who formulated the law. Congressman Acosta’s mother, for example, is more popularly known as the “Mother of the Clean Air Act,” and was one of those who first sponsored the bill.

JUN Q: Indeed this forum was partly organized to emphasize the difference between garbage and solid waste. The latter is beneficial and not polluting while garbage, once disposed of, and in large numbers, can endanger. Solid waste helps generate an honest living while garbage just produces the unfortunate indigent garbage collector. Let me, however, shift our concerns to a concrete garbage-related problem: the conflict between the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and Jancom Environmental Corporation. Tita Odette, what has happened to us Filipinos that we continue to produce so much garbage?

TITA ODETTE: People and garbage are intimately linked. The more the people, the more the garbage; the less the people, the less the garbage. No people, no garbage. Population is an important element here, so if a place has a lot of people, then expect it to produce huge piles of garbage. The ideal situation is that despite increase in numbers people know how to properly dispose of their garbage.

JUN Q: Because of the inordinate amount of garbage we have, we really have no choice but to enter into a waste management contract [with companies like Jancom] at prohibitive expense. Recently the Supreme Court decided in favor of Jancom in its fight with the MMD. But the latter has also submitted a motion for reconsideration to the court. While we waited for the Court’s decision, Congressman Acosta delivered a privilege speech in Congress in which he argued strongly against the contract with Jancom. Congressman Acosta, can you give us the main reasons for your opposition?

REP ACOSTA: We of the Committee on Ecology held a series of hearings to look into why the conflict [between MMDA and Jancom] ended up in the Supreme Court. We discovered that this was simply not a question of ownership, i.e., who were the signatories and who were the real owners of the company. It was as if we entered into a dark area and we didn’t know who was telling the truth. But what was clear was that the problem arose from the realization that there is money in garbage. The contract with Jancom would assure the company loads of money, given that there is a USD 350 million allotment for the project’s initial phase and an additional 390 billion pesos or more in the next 25 years. The MMDA was tied down to a contract whose terms were so questionable that even the Coordinating Committee of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) disapproved it. Then it turned out that it did not even have the signature of then President Fidel Ramos when the contract was supposed to start in 1997.

To put it more starkly, we can liken this contract to a dead horse – Jancom – that was suddenly brought back to life and even entered in the derby, no less than the Third Division of the Supreme Court, something which I frankly think is quite suspicious. Now this goes even beyond environmental considerations because, as Tita Odette put it, given the amount involved, the issue has become one involving possible corruption and plunder. If the Jancom contract is upheld, it will destroy the spirit of the Clean Air Act and the Solid Waste Management Act, and with it our effort to inculcate and spread a pro-environment consciousness. In the end, you talk of billions of pesos spent under a contract that smells more than the actual garage. Which is why we need to look into this issue again.

JUN Q: Tita Odette, did you not meet with President Arroyo and didn’t she promise that her waste management program would exclude the construction of an incinerator?

TITA ODETTE: That was the first bill that she signed into law. And so I expect her not to be the first to violate that very law.

JUN Q: You know, Tita Odette, we are expected to underwrite the billions of pesos that are supposed to fund the project. The arrangement is similar to the one that the city of Puerto Princesa in Palawan province entered into. We also found out that if the previous administration [of Pres. Joseph Estrada] signed the contract for Jancom to build a sanitary landfill, it would only last 4-6 years before it would be filled up. The cost by then would reach 130 million pesos. Is that how expensive solid waste management is?

TITA ODETTE: In our version of solid waste management, you not only save money, you actually earn it! This is because one byproduct would be fertilizer, which can be used to nourish plants and vegetables. Then there are the benefits of recycling – the opportunity to turn waste into products like homemade crafts which one can then turn into a livelihood opportunity. The billions of pesos that Congressman Acosta mentioned will be spent for incinerating the garbage – we should not call this money! It should be called extortion!

I am told that there is money for the waste management programs of small and medium-size industries. But in the main, it is extortion, garbage management is one corrupt business. And where will all this lead us: not only will we be immersed in garbage, we will be sinking in debt. That’s called double whammy.

JUN Q: Congressman Acosta, I’d like to go back to the privilege speech you delivered in Congress. The motion you proposed was supposedly in aid of legislation only. Now how would this affect the Jancom contract?

REP ACOSTA: I hope that there will be a move in the chambers of Congress to prevent President Arroyo from signing the contract. While the Supreme Court sided with Jancom, it did acknowledge that the contract had a number of loopholes. I warned my colleagues in my privilege speech that “wait a minute, we should reconsider the issues for it seems that by its decision the Supreme Court had engaged in judicial legislation.” It also appeared that the Court even usurped our power to conduct reviews under the Clean Air Act. The Court did admit in its decision that even if the contract is perfected, it is still ineffective or unimplemented until or unless approved by the President of the Philippines.

JUN Q: That was what I wanted to point out, Congressman – the claim by certain sectors that the contract is also a perfected one, but the problem is really the effectiveness and/or ineffectiveness of its implementation.

REP ACOSTA: That can also be considered double speak.

JUN Q: Now let me ask the non-lawyer – Tita Odette, what do you think of the controversy over the Jancom contract?

TITA ODETTE: I actually do not waste my time and energy on this issue. I’d rather spend quality time in teaching at least 500 people per day about the proper way of solid waste management. I have no interest in the contract. I think it is so meaningless that will fizzle out on its own.

JUN Q: Alright. You mentioned that there is money in solid waste. Can you explain in simple terms, the steps in proper solid waste management?

TITA ODETTE: Okay. There are two kinds of wastes. Biodegradable and non-biodegradable. You have to make sure you separate the two as the spoiling type can become compost that we can add to the soil. As for the non-biodegradable – bottles, paper, cans, carton boxes, etc., — your aim is to keep them clean. Now there are a lot of junk shops all over (Manila has about 1,700 junk shops alone) where you can peddle these non-spoiling wastes. You will surely benefit from selling them to these shops, and this will cut costs.

Meanwhile, once you add the spoiling waste as compost on the soil, you will eventually notice plants growing. This was what I did to my backyard and you should look at the diversity of plants and flowers that grew in it. At times after eating a papaya fruit, I’d bury the seeds and before I knew it, small papaya plants began to grow. I ended up giving away some of these since I cannot get myself to uproot them. This is the waste management I am talking about and practicing, one that is loves our national soil and respects the resources God has given us. It is also a system that serves people and I dare say also a patriotic act of waste management.

At the other end, you have those incinerators and the billions of pesos of incurred debt – all a betrayal of our national interest. Treason of the worst kind! More evil than the Makapili [Filipinos who collaborated actively with the Japanese during World War II. Ed]. They do nothing but harm everyone! EVERYONE and EVERYTHING – the land, the sun, the air, the water, ourselves! All of God’s creatures, all those living will be harmed. What you burn you also breathe. In the end all of us will be affected, including those who benefited from [the incinerator program] because we are all in this – we breath the same air, drink the same water, are children of the same soil.

JUN Q: Congressman, Tita Odette mentions the general ban on garbage incineration, which are the most controversial provisions of the Solid Waste Management Act and the Clean Air Act. How do you respond to those who criticized this provison?

REP ACOSTA: For all of this sophisticated [incinerator] technology, there are also very expensive anti-pollution equipment and processes. Japan, for example, has to spend over USD 3 billion on anti-pollution equipment and processes for their sophisticated incinerators. We cannot even fund the Clean Air Act, so how can we boast that we have the capacity to build an incinerator? In fact, we argued that we should begin with communities, with consciousness-raising, with people, with education, because if we really go straight into the big-time technology, we cannot even have the proper monitoring, we cannot even have the proper equipment, the proper expertise, the proper technical aspects for all of this technology.

TITA ODETTE: But the question is what would you burn? And why would you burn these materials? We should stop this illusion about acquiring the state-of-the-art technology. What we should be more concerned about is the state of the Earth! Why should you burn a banana peeling when you can bury it in the soil. This [state-of-the-art technology thing] is like buying a washing machine just to wash a handkerchief! Why so technological in our thinking? Why don’t they consider composting and recycling instead of technology? These – composting and recycling – are the perfect technology, defect-free because they are God’s design. How can you go up against that!

REP ACOSTA: Let me just add something here: one other issue that we may have failed to consider is that garbage – as we see it now, as we have it now – has a high moisture content. So, even if you have very sophisticated technology that you want to adapt, that you want to bring into the country, you also have to consider the different types of wastes that you actually have here.

We are a tropical country, very humid. The composition of the waste here often would have as high as 30% in moisture content. It can be soaking wet. It will take so much more energy to burn waste here compared to burning waste in the northern countries. Thus we end up doubling, even tripling the energy we need as well as the anti-pollution process that we have to put into operation. In short, different kinds of processes are necessary to deal with this problem. You cannot simply dismiss all technology as the same. You also have to look at the composition of the waste itself. On this day, what kinds of waste are prevalent that we need a Jancom to dispose of them? Is it more plastic today, more hazardous waste tomorrow? In other words, what has more weight for today’s quota that you can then bring to Jancom?

JUN Q: Tita Odette, you say that this modern technology is not only expensive, but that it is also counterproductive and inappropriate for our country’s needs since the character of the waste we produce is affected by our being a tropical country. You also said that we should localize waste management, we should find ways at the local level to solve the problem. So what should be the role of the national and local governments then? What should be the role of ordinary citizens to make all this happen?

TITA ODETTE: The law is there, so it is only a matter of decentralizing its implementation. The initiative must not come from the top but from the bottom – from the village head [barangay captain], who is the real head of the community. He should coordinate everything, dividing the work amongst the community members, and ensuring that the practice of decentralized waste management must involve social participation. What else do you need? The law is already there. The only question left really is proper implementation, and once this happens, the entire Jancom racket will peter out.

The problem, however, is that many of our barangay officials are hostages of the higher-ups. The mayors and those above them tightly control our local councils. And this affects very much how we go about implementing the rules and regulations. Then there is the government body, the National Solid Waste Commission. It is composed of 17 members, 14 of whom come from the different departments. Their involvement, however, depends on whether they have the time to join in the Commission’s deliberations. The three remaining members come from the private sectors, two from business and one from the NGOs. These three are required to possess the appropriate experience for the job – they must be tried and tested, and must also have good moral character! These are not required of their government counterparts.

REP ACOSTA: Herein actually lies the problem once you implement the laws at the local level. Still, I feel that it is important that this program must have some legal foundation upon which we can get people to understand and act. Their actions must have basis. That is the very role, the purpose of the law itself, that it would hopefully provide some guidance for local governments, down to the village level, including the people of the communities.

JUN Q: Can I just connect all these back to the Jancom contract? Congressman Acosta, we’ve discussed the possibility of undertaking solid waste management at the local level, and cheaply at that. But given how expensive the Jancom contract is, can we pay Jancom through a power purchase adjustment (PPA)? This means adding cost to our electricity bill based on the contract’s stipulation that Jancom convert garbage into energy. Do you agree to the idea that the cost of garbage disposal should be passed on to the citizens and is this PPA the right way to do so?

REP ACOSTA: No, of course not. You see, the Jancom contract already has a provision for an automatic energy buy-back that is more expensive than that of the National Power Corporation; three times more expensive. And the government is required to buy back the energy produced, at a quota of 3,000 metric tons daily. And even if Jancom could only deliver 1,500 or 2,000 metric tons, government is still obliged to pay for the difference. And the price is pegged at USD 59 per metric ton!

JUN Q: My understanding is that this is already a renegotiated price.

REP ACOSTA: Exactly. And to think that the price was originally pegged at USD 10 per metric ton. To use an analogy, if the first contract was for the purchase of a car, by the time of signing it had suddenly turned into one for an airplane. And this was what the Supreme Court upheld! So who would benefit from the difference, the difference between the car and the airplane? It’s corruption, a plunder issue that we all have to talk about because you know who will end up paying for all this. This is going to be a heavy burden for the citizens, for all of us. We will all pay for this, including the triple energy buy-back, in our electric bills.

TITA ODETTE: But there is an alternative to the Solid Waste Management Law. All that is needed is a small space for an ecology center where we can transform waste into compost to be placed in our gardens, or a warehouse where they can bring their recyclable materials. If all villages have “material recovery facilities” or “ecology centers,” they would not need to apply for loans. They would not need this unreasonable contract and this unreasonable company. This is why I keep emphasizing that with solid waste management, garbage will disappear. But their notion of garbage disposal actually means that garbage will have to continue to exist since they need people to supply them with such. But if people are made aware of this, then they will refuse to supply garbage, in fact, they will not even produce or manufacture garbage. Let a thousand ecology centers bloom. And even if they continue to talk about this Jancom contract for another year, it becomes a moot and academic issue.

REP ACOSTA: It is as simple as going back to the basics, and it applies to waste management just as it applies to governance. And governance is about decentralization; it is about being able to empower communities, giving people a sense of ownership. They are given the right to determine their lives’ direction and the direction they think their communities should go. As a legislator and a teacher, I would like to emphasize here the importance of the philosophy of rethinking, of being able to somehow shape our paradigm and way of thinking. This is where everything actually begins and where I think the leadership can set an example. It’s a leadership by example because you change your way of thinking and therefore your way of doing things.

JUN Q: The rethinking and reorientation of the issue from another perspective have become, more than ever, imperative for all of us. I remember one time while I was a guest on a television program, I heard a high government official assert that the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act and the Clean Air Act are hypocritical. I surmise that his complaint had to do with both laws banning incineration and insisting on solid waste management rather than simple garbage disposal. I disagree with his view. For me, these laws are an invitation or challenge for us to examine the issue of garbage or solid waste from a well-grounded and also expansive perspective. This, for me, is the first important lesson from this forum.

We create garbage because we have already reached a point where we regard things that we see no use for and do not need as garbage – garbage that must be thrown away or be simply dumped anywhere. And here we are, even arrogantly haranguing people that there is money in garbage. But this attitude has been shattered by the Payatas tragedy, where we once thought the mountains of garbage would free us from our social responsibilities simply because these could potentially generate income for our poorer compatriots. Responsibility. That is the second lesson that I learned today. Our wanton discarding and dumping of garbage has resulted in tragedy, as we witnessed in Payatas, and now at what cost to our government and ourselves. This is sheer irresponsibility on our part, towards our fellowmen and women and to the nation. An equally important insight I learned today is the importance of taking care of our integrity. There is no pride in making filthy garbage collectors out of hundreds and hundreds of our poor compatriots when we can hire thousands after thousands of clean and health solid waste managers. For me, the major root of the garbage problem lies in our embracing the ethos of commercialism and materialism. Commercialism has changed the kind of life we had, our lifestyles, and this includes the kind of values we cherish. It is time that we re-examine government policies, the culture of our society, and most important of all, ourselves.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 2 (October 2002). Disaster and Rehabilitation