Monday, January 21, 2008

Trash talk

This is my column today.

A news story that went largely ignored by most everyone in media last week was the threat of yet another garbage crisis in Metro Manila. It did get cursory mention in some television newscasts and in some papers, but it was given much less attention than the other types of trash that this country produces every day—such as Joseph Estrada’s latest attempts at prevarication and all this nonsense about forgetting Edsa Dos.

As in the past, there were much preening and cackling for the cameras as local executives of the province of Rizal and environment bureaucrats went after each other’s throats. For a while there, it looked like the contending parties were finally on to the real and substantive issues related to this recurring problem of managing the thousands of tons of garbage Metro Manila produces everyday.

Unfortunately, the real nature of the squabble—it turned out to be nothing more than a turf issue—soon became apparent. Thus, all it took was some efforts to smoothen some ruffled feathers and presto, another looming garbage crisis was averted.

All’s well that ends well? For the moment, yes. But the garbage crisis is something that will continue to haunt us unless a more comprehensive and strategic solution is put in place. The crisis is not only recurring more frequently. The last time we had a garbage crisis in Metro Manila happened barely a few months ago in October when the province of Rizal closed down a dumpsite. The magnitude of the problem is also increasing each time, as it does seem to take less and less time for dumpsites to be filled up.

This is expected as Metro Manila becomes more congested. There really is not enough space that can accommodate the garbage that Metro Manila’s 12 million residents generate every day. The 19-hectare dumpsite at Rodriguez, Rizal looks sprawling on television, but we all know that a couple of months is all it will take to fill that space. Most other landfills are already filled to capacity.

We’re running out of dump yards and people willing to make the sacrifice of living beside trash. As a result, many have taken to simply dumping trash on private lands, or into canals and rivers, and even into Manila Bay.

The citizens of Rizal may seem resigned to their fate as host to toxic substances right now, but we all know that this will change when the stench becomes unbearable and when the trash becomes eyesores of monstrous proportions. This early, there are already a number of blogs put up by citizens of Rizal all condemning the seeming obsequiousness of their local executives to the whims of imperial Manila. It’s only a matter of time before the citizens of Rizal do their own version of people power against trash.

A few years ago, the citizens of the province of Cavite were in that situation when they also opposed dumping on their province. I remember some local executives of Metro Manila responding to the situation with one of the most stupid reactions ever. They threatened to bar Caviteños, particularly working people, from entering Metro Manila. The acrobatic logic beyond the ludicrous tit for tat was that if the people of Cavite do not allow Metro Manila residents to pollute their historic and sacred grounds, they shouldn’t be allowed as well to make a living in Metro Manila. I am glad no one indulged in that kind of absurdity this time around.

I know that a number of those living in Metro Manila think that other people should accept being recipients of our trash as if it’s a blessing that is bestowed upon them. I hope that these people don’t ever get to live near a dumpsite and experience for themselves what it feels like to breathe, smell, taste, and live with garbage every day of their lives.

Let’s face it. No province or town really deserves to make that kind of sacrifice. In the spirit of calling a spade a dirty shovel, hosting Metro Manila’s garbage is a major sacrifice. It is a burden that no one should be made to suffer. We are all aware of the kind of aggravation garbage makes. Who hasn’t come across neighbors coming to blows over garbage that’s been—whether intended or not—piled on someone’s front yard? Nobody wants to have garbage piled on one’s yard. It’s unsightly. It’s unsanitary. And it stinks. Now, compound that problem a thousand-fold and you have the kind of situation the citizens of the province of Rizal face everyday.

Metro Manila’s garbage problem has been described many different ways. One congressman referred to it as a “ticking, stinking time bomb.” One former environment secretary quaintly described it as a “rotten erupting volcano.” No one has come forward with a more comprehensive waste management plan. Everyone is still talking quick fixes and magic bullets.

The filthy stinking mess is hopelessly drowned in politics. In case you don’t know, there’s a lot of money involved in it. And I’m not talking about the pittance that the people who pick on garbage everyday make.

Garbage collection is a multi-million-peso business venture. It means awarding a government contract, and a government contract means kickbacks and commissions for local executives. That’s not really difficult to figure out. What, you think that our local executives don’t make money on trash? It gives another dimension to the cliché “one person’s trash is another man’s fortune.”

So indeed, why come up with a comprehensive, long-term plan on waste management that takes a lot of courage and hard work to implement when a quick fix is available, and one that offers a bounty?

In the meantime, we are faced with this filthy, stinking problem of our own making. It’s a problem that won’t go away and is bound to become more and more serious.

Oh I know that all of us are responsible for the problem, and consequently, the crafting and the implementation of a workable solution. We generate trash, we should be responsible for it. Sure, we should all be made accountable. Of course we should all pitch in and help in the effort. We should exert all efforts to completely eliminate, or at least reduce the amount of garbage we generate everyday. Fine.

The problem is that such an effort requires a master plan that involves educating people, providing support mechanisms, even putting in place the necessary infrastructure to carry it out. I am not talking about coming up with another law! Good grief, we have more than enough laws in this country that’s gathering dust in some shelves. Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 has already been passed. The problem is translating the law into a plan and marshalling efforts to implement it.

The reality is that reducing waste is doable. Filipinos can do more than just lugging around fashionable bags that proclaim “This is not made out of plastic.” The problem is many don’t know how. And there seems to be no one out there among our leaders who has the political will and the courage to stand up and lead in this effort.

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