Gerardo Reyes Jr.

Published: May 23, 2023

In the city of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, Philippines, women waste pickers take the lead in addressing marine plastic pollution. Thanks to the private sector-led Project Eco-Kolek.

The Philippines is considered to be among the biggest sources of discarded plastic which then make their way to the ocean. In Puerto Princesa, about 155 to 170 tons of unsorted solid waste are generated daily.

The city is experiencing rapid urbanization and economic growth due to the flourishing tourism industry, which raises concerns about its ability to hold the mounting waste. Proper segregation, collection, transfer, handling at its final endpoint, and weak implementation of local solid waste management (SWM) ordinances are among the city’s challenges.

Informal waste collectors, especially women who make up a huge portion of this sector, are crucial service providers and first line of defense against ocean pollution as they recover and divert recyclables from reaching the landfill and coastal areas. However, these informal waste pickers are often overlooked, undervalued, and stigmatized due to their kind of work.

Since 2020, Project Eco Kolek has been attempting to turn the situation around for the waste pickers taking the lead in addressing marine plastic pollution by empowering women informal waste pickers.

A grassroots driven tech-company, Project Eco Kolek introduced an efficient collection of recyclable plastic waste and clustered door-to-door pick up via mobile app and materials recovery services. Through this, founder John Vincent Gastanes and his team have created a business model that improves the well-being of the informal waste pickers, while helping the city government of Puerto Princesa to reduce its solid wastes.

“Project Eco-Kolek is driven to create, discover, refine, package, and produce leaders with a servant leader’s heart and address the different faces of poverty in the community,” Gastanes said.

Segregate, Collect, Recycle

22-year-old Jailyn Danguen, who belongs to the Tagbanua indigenous people, has been collecting recyclables since 2014. She is a mother, a wife and a waste picker, juggling multiple responsibilities to support the needs for her family. Her husband is a construction worker.
Danguen’s day begins with a family prayer before preparing and cooking meals for breakfast and lunch. After preparing the food, she joins other waste pickers for more than three hours a day.

She said that she saw stray animals scattering solid wastes in streets and public places, making the solid waste problem in this city. Danguen said that despite the foul-smelling work, she grew accustomed to it and proud to do her part in keeping the environment clean.
Like Danguen, multiple women waste pickers became active catalysts of change when Project Eco Kolek implemented social and behavior change campaigns and innovations at the local level.

Through door-to-door collection, they collect recyclable wastes in Barangay Bancao-Bancao. Lydia Casiano, who leads the women-dominated informal waste pickers, urges her neighbors and other residents in their urban community to segregate their recyclable wastes such as PET bottles, tin cans, glass bottles, cardboards, and other recyclable materials. Segregating at source, she said, helped them a lot, since scavenging in waste bins full of mixed solid wastes has been unsanitary and unsafe for them.

“Wastes are not actually wastes, but they are treasures, and because these are treasures, we should know how to become clean and orderly,” she said.

The waste pickers were provided with uniforms, motorized vehicles, optimized collection schedule and routes, building to house their sorting and temporary storage area, collection operations ongoing-directly linked to partner households and establishments like shopping malls in the locality.

Empowering the informal waste pickers

An important part of the project is to upskill and train the informal waste pickers. Project Eco Kolek partnered with Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) and city government of Puerto Princesa to pave the way for the professionalization of the ranks of the informal waste pickers. They inaugurated training courses namely Waste Collection NC I and NC II, which were considered to be the first in the Philippines.

Through this, they provide training on waste management, health and safety, recordkeeping and driving.

“Before, we merely scavenged for waste, we lacked the knowledge. Now, we can teach our neighbors on how to segregate solid wastes, and can properly record and keep inventory of our recyclable plastics,” said Casiano.

Before, they were only paid a meager amount by scrap buyers. With Project Eco Kolek, waste pickers are adequately trained not only about occupational health, safety, risk reduction and management, but they also get higher income since they are able to collect more recyclables through route plans and the service vehicles provided by the project.

Casiano said waste pickers used to earn only P1,500 ($26) a week. Now, they are earning as much as P4,000 ($71) weekly from collecting recyclables.

“When we scavenged before, we earned meager amounts and it was difficult. We are now collecting more recyclables. The provision of vehicles makes it easier to collect recyclables,” she said.

Not an easy task

Women informal waste pickers said it was not easy for them to convince neighbors to do segregation. People in this city are used to disposing their household solid wastes in mixed and unsorted waste bins, which in the following day are collected by the garbage truck of the City Solid Waste Management Office.

“They were unfamiliar with waste segregation. They knew nothing about it and they were not doing it.” said Liezl Tibar, another waste picker associated with the project.

This was not the only challenge they faced. Collecting PET bottles is still not bringing high prices. The waste pickers could have received a higher value if there were plastic recycling centers in Puerto Princesa. This could have fetched them up to 40 pesos ( 0.72 US dollar) per kilo, instead of the current 7 pesos ( 0.13 US dollar), had the PET bottles been processed into pellets. However, there is no such processing plant in the locality.

Jan Aldwin Bermeo, solid waste management community-based trainer of Project Eco Kolek, said that processing machines are costly. They are hopeful that the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) will grant their request for solid waste processing equipment so that they can expand their services and operations. They are partnering with other companies and organizations that will help them expand their services like that of Coca-Cola Foundation.

City Environment and Natural Resources Officer (City ENRO) of Puerto Princesa, Atty. Carlo B. Gomez said that Project Eco Kolek is considered a champion in environmental protection in this city. In 2022, Project Eco-Kolek partnered with their office through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), specifically on technical assistance and other support.

City Mayor Lucilo R. Bayron on March 4, 2023 conferred the Mayor’s Award 2023 to Project Eco-Kolek for their remarkable achievements.