Thursday, October 7, 2010

Turning trash into cash

For Buklod Tao (BT), linking livelihoods to economic opportunities is key. The activities of this community organization are based on an associative business model or “pangkilikan” in which the products of one business are purchased and used for another.

There are four businesses in the pangkilikan:  1) organic compost production, 2) organic urban container gardening, 3
) tetra pot production and 4) fiberglass mesh production. The video below outlines how the system works. 

The thoughtfulness, creativity and simplicity of the approach fascinates me. A sustainability principle is built into the system, in which sustainability spans environmental, social and economic spheres. Here are selected excerpts from my discussion with Noli Abinales (more on him and Buklod Tao in the "building disaster resilient communities" post).

On composting...

The composting business is temporarily on hold, for several reasons. First, their "shredding machine" is broken. Second, the neighbours of Buklod Tao complained about the smell and the municipality has ordered them to halt operations. (similar situation unfolded in Guelph, Ontario several years ago.) BT is currently seeking land in a non-residential zone.

When the business is operational it works as follows.  Compost buckets are given to 30 participating families, along with instructions on composting do's and don'ts. Each weekday morning, BT-employed collectors pick up the organic waste. Back at the BT headquarters, t
he  waste is shredded, left to decompose in a closed container, and finally enriched with purchased powdered charcoal and chicken dung.
Compost bucket
The innovative part comes in with the integration of an alternative currency system that supports the local economy at the micro level. Points are allocated based on how much waste is in the bucket (full bucket=4 points, half-full bucket=2 points). The families receive tokens that can be exchanged for goods at selected sari-sari shops. For example, a bar of soap “costs” 12 tokens. The sari-sari owners can then bring the tokens to BT and exchange them for actual coins and bills. The scheme helps secure business for shop owners, many of whom are the beneficiaries of a post-Ondoy rehabilitation loan administered by BT. It's a small loan of P5,000, but it's enough for small-scale entrepreneurs to get started.  
The daughters of one sari-sari shop owner who received a rehabilitation loan.
This scheme achieves several goals: people sort their garbage; waste is diverted away from landfill sites (and from the river); families earn from their garbage; raw material is collected for composting and gardening businesses; urban poor gain jobs as compost collectors; local entrepreneurs gain customers and can repay their loans, et cetera. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that BT can acquire suitable land ASAP so the composting business resumes.

On organic urban container gardening...
BT has turned three vacant lots into three small urban gardens. Each garden employs one garden manager and several part-time gardeners. The garden I visit is roughly half the size of a basketball court. Not-yet-mature vegetable plants protected by a bamboo fence adorn the garden entrance. 
Entering an urban organic garden
Inside there are two shelters. One is nearly empty save several tetrapack containers stashed in a wheelbarrow. The other houses sacks of organic compost, charcoal dust, topsoil and chicken dung.
Wheelbarrow holding tetrapack containers. Note the roof of the shelter is also made of tetrapacks.
To make the most of their limited space, the gardens incorporate some permaculture techniques, including vertical gardening.  Six risers occupy most of the space. Each riser requires 10 square meters and can hold 110-120 tetrapacks. The wild colours of the tetra pots and the perky plants in various shades of green make for an attractive and cheery garden.
Riser with vegetable- and herb-filled tetra pots.
All kinds of herbs and vegetables are grown in the tetrapacks - basil, parsley, bitter gourd, tomatoes, okra, eggplant, greens and more. The produce is sold at a premium price. Some day, Noli muses to me, disaster-resilient communities will grow organic produce that is safety packaged in tetrapacks. The produce would make a welcome and healthy variation in relief kits.   

On tetra pot production...

In the Philippines, juice and fruit drinks are sold in tetrapacks. They are very popular, and kids will drink several every day. Unfortunately, many tetrapacks are carelessly discarded, littering sidewalks and clogging sewers and waterways. So the opportunity to turn this trash into something productive was a welcome one. 

Tetra pot production is not new, nor is it unique to the Philippines. In San Mateo, the initiative began several years ago when BT started collecting discarded tetrapacks from the streets, schools and conferences. They borrowed three sewing machines and began production. Some women were already making bags and other things from the tetrapacks pre-2007, but all their production equipment was lost with the Ondoy floodwaters.

Clean dry tetrapacks are sorted by colour before being sewn into various products.
Production begins with “Tetra pickers” (women, men, kids) who collect the tetrapacks, cut out the bottom flaps, snip off the tops, then clean and dry them. (Technology exists to reuse the discarded bits, but BT doesn’t have the equipment nor the technical know-how ... yet.) BT staff buy the tetrapacks for 25 centavos for a clean, standard-size tetrapack or 10 centavos for a smaller or subpar one (e.g. not cleaned properly). Last week, one woman traded in more than 3000 tetrapacks, earning herself P750 (a princely sum for an urban poor)!  
The sewing room and a pile of nearly-finished tetra pots.
Clean standard-size tetrapacks are sewed into a variety of items. The main product is the gardening container or "tetra pot", sold for P10 apiece to BT's gardening business. Sewers are paid by the piece. They receive P1.5 for the first 70 pieces per day, then P3 for each one after that. One older woman can sew 100 pieces per day and regularly earns P2,000 per week. Other tetrapack items include conference bags, roofs for tricycles, …
Tetrapack gardening containers or "tetra pots" are the main product of the tetrapack business.
News that BT buys tetrapacks has traveled to neighbouring barangays. During my visit a group of women living several villages away come by with bags full of tetrapacks. BT doesn't usually do any business on Sunday, but the women have had to pay for transportation and are very reluctant to return home without getting at least some money.

On fibreglass mesh production...
Fiberglass mesh is used for two products. The first is the fiberglass rescue boats used for the rescue operations. The boats are critical to the community's disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategy.  
Fibreglass rescue boats are key to disaster risk reduction strategies.
The second product is the fiberglass compost buckets, which are purchased by BT's organic compost production business. 
Fibreglass compost buckets
At this point in time, both business are still very small in scale because the products must be  patented, tested and certified before they can be sold to other buyers. In the foreseeable future, BT hopes to begin selling their products to the government and to other communities.

*   *   *
I imagine some readers are wondering how initiatives such as these associated businesses are funded. Buklod Tao receives funding from a variety of local, national and international sources. Some funders you might recognize include Christian Aid and Save the Children. 

One of the fascinating, sometimes uplifting, sometimes heart-wrenching aspects of doing research in a developing country is the opportunity to visit many project sites. In doing so, I'm putting a face, a name, a sound, a smell, a feeling, a story to many development/aid organizations. It's one thing to leaf through the glossy brochures of an organization. It's an entirely different experience to witness activities on the ground.

If you support an organization who works with partners in the Philippines, please add it to the comments below. If I visit their offices and/or project sites, I'll make a point to blog about the experience.  Salamat po!

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