This story was co-published with Rappler, a Philippines-based online news publication.
On a sunny June morning, Marilyn Lopez Capentes and Maylen Lopez push a metal cart through a narrow alleyway between modest homes in the Filipino city of Malabon, part of Metro Manila. Passing doorways adorned with plants growing out of plastic soda bottles, they stop at each household to gather waste, which they deposit into separate sacks for trash, recyclables, and organics, before rolling on.
All the corn cobs, egg shells, and mango peels Lopez and Capentes collect are destined for a nearby materials-recovery facility. There, the food scraps will be composted in towers of colorfully painted stacked tires and upright pipes, or fed into a blue plastic biodigester that powers a small gas burner nearby, on which the workers cook the rice for their lunch.
“In a waste-management scenario, once you address the organics, most likely you’re already addressing 50 to 60 percent of the waste problem,” explained Rap Villavicencio, a program manager at Mother Earth Foundation, the nonprofit that spearheaded the system at play.
Another 12 to 20 percent is recyclables, he said, which means this deceptively simple approach can keep up to 80 percent of waste out of landfills. And it comes with tangible benefits for Malabon residents: Less trash in the streets and gutters means less flooding and fewer odors, and the program has created local green jobs to boot.
It’s the success of this model that inspired GAIA, a nonprofit focused on alternatives to waste incineration, to connect Mother Earth Foundation with the Breathe Free Detroit campaign in Detroit, Michigan, which was established in 2015 to fight a nearby waste incinerator.
Though the groups have different primary focuses, they’re both fighting pollution that harms their communities. Mother Earth Foundation created a grassroots waste-management solution so effective it influenced the local government. That experience positioned it to offer guidance to Breathe Free Detroit, which is advocating for the community it represents to have more agency over how their waste is managed, too.
For more than two years now, representatives from each have been meeting regularly via Zoom to encourage one another, share best practices for countering neglect and fighting bad actors, and glean new ideas from what’s worked for their peers on the other side of the globe in a unique cross-cultural exchange.
“Looking at the success of the Mother Earth Foundation’s efforts in creating a decentralized multiscale composting system, we wanted to make that work here in the city of Detroit,” said KT Andresky, the campaign organizer at Breathe Free Detroit.
Leadership from the Philippines
Founded in 1998, Mother Earth Foundation was started by a group of mothers in Quezon City, seven miles from Malabon, who were frustrated by delayed garbage collection in their neighborhood.
Over the next 25 years, the nonprofit lobbied for the 1999 Clean Air Act, which regulates activities that cause air pollution, and the 2000 Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, mandating the adoption of systematic waste management. The nonprofit soon emerged as a leader in zero-waste practices in the Philippines and the Asia Pacific region more broadly.
In 2013, the organization turned its attention to San Agustin, a barangay — the smallest political unit in the Philippines, analogous to a ward or district — in Malabon. The barangay had insufficient infrastructure in place to deal with residents’ waste, and as a result, most household trash was taken to an open dump site in a nearby empty lot or left to fester in the streets.
Besides being unsanitary and unpleasant to live around, all that trash posed a flood risk. As a low-lying barangay near Manila Bay flanked by the Navotas River on one side and the Tullahan River on the other, the area has long been prone to inundation during typhoon season, which is intensifying in the Philippines, one of the nations most vulnerable to climate change. But the trash problem in San Agustin compounded flooding even further, clogging the drains and gutters that would’ve allowed some of the water to drain off the streets.
The community-led waste-management program Mother Earth Foundation helped implement, wherein local waste workers walk the alleys with a cart every day to collect household waste and bring it to a facility where the majority of it can be composted or recycled, has made a noticeable difference.
“They no longer have to put their waste in the street,” said Ranz Lebria, a program officer at Mother Earth.
It was hard at first to convince the community to separate out their organic waste for collection when there wasn’t a clear financial return, the way there is for sorting out recyclables like plastic.
But 10 years into the program, San Agustin residents “have a positive outlook,” she said, and are proud of how clean the system keeps their community. While the foundation funded the early efforts, barangay leaders have seen the benefits clearly enough that they now contribute local government funding to maintain the facilities and pay the waste workers.
Fighting incinerator pollution in Detroit
Breathe Free Detroit is a campaign that was created in 2015 by a handful of Detroit-based environmental organizations to join the long fight against the euphemistically named Detroit Renewable Power. The waste incinerator spewed toxic particulate matter, including cancer-causing dioxins, into the nearby East Side, a primarily Black community, for decades.
“Having a facility like that running for 33 years completely devastated the neighborhood that I live in,” said Andresky. “A lot of businesses and families left. Many schools shut down.”
She recounted hearing of a family whose athlete kids were plagued by asthma once they moved to the neighborhood, and whose symptoms resolved once they moved away. “There was huge disinvestment in this neighborhood, because it pretty much was a toxic place to live,” she added.
After years of campaigning from Breathe Free and other advocacy groups, the incinerator finally shut down in 2019, which many counted as a win. But residents are still living with the health consequences in the form of “rare cancers” and genetic disorders, she said.
“We lost a lot of neighbors to COVID because of the preexisting condition. We still live with those toxins in our bodies and our lungs and our blood.”
Some East Side residents began composting “as an act of resistance” while the incinerator was still up and running, and Andresky said that interest has increased since its shutdown, as residents are “really protective” of their clean air. By composting locally in backyards and vacant lots, she said, they can reduce the number of exhaust-spewing garbage trucks passing through the neighborhood, which will save the city money and keep the air cleaner.
That’s where Mother Earth Foundation comes in. The two organizations were introduced in 2020 via GAIA, a global nonprofit network they’re both members of. GAIA also connected them to an opportunity through C40 Cities, a global network of mayors working on climate solutions, to receive stipends for their time and participation in the partnership.
Breathe Free Detroit’s members were eager to learn from Mother Earth’s expertise with composting in a mix of rural and urban settings, which Andresky said parallels Detroit’s landscape dotted with urban farms. Leaders from both groups began meeting regularly on Zoom to talk about multiscale composting efforts as Breathe Free Detroit began its own compost pilot. And after two years of Zoom calls, the two organizations finally got to visit each other in person — reps from Breathe Free came to the Philippines in January, and Mother Earth leaders traveled to Detroit in April.
Andresky’s main takeaways from the relationship have been about how to get “multiscale, decentralized composting” up and running.
She wants to see systems like the one in San Agustin that make use of hyperlocal composting sites rather than relying on a big industrial operation, especially since there are so many urban farms in Detroit that could benefit from keeping those nutrients cycling in local soil. To that end, Breathe Free Detroit is currently working on a composting pilot, in the hopes that it will prove to the city that backyard and community composting are worth investing in.
“A municipal pickup of food waste that is trucked in and trucked out hundreds of miles is not the best zero-waste system,” she said, “and if we’re starting from scratch here in Detroit, we should really establish the best system.”
A true exchange
Breathe Free Detroit is returning the favor and offering lessons from its community experience, too. Though the Philippines was the first nation in the world to ban waste incinerators outright as part of the country’s Clean Air Act, companies from Europe and Japan have used alternate terms like “waste to energy” or “gasification” when describing their facilities to exploit loopholes in the law and build plants in the country anyway.
The same companies are also pushing to amend the law in question, which Villavicencio sees as tantamount to an admission of guilt — if what these facilities are doing really isn’t incineration, he argues, there would be no push to change the law in the first place.
“It’s a human rights issue. Incinerators are placed mostly in marginalized communities,” he said. “In our case in the Philippines, it’s in the areas of Indigenous people. It’s environmental discrimination.”
On her trip to Manila, Andresky took a detour with Mother Earth representatives to the city of Dumaguete, where a new “gasification” facility recently opened, to try to communicate the urgency of the negative health impacts that accompany living near an incinerator. Her message was very different from the ones locals had been hearing on the radio from politicians, who promised that having an incinerator nearby would be harmless.
“What we’ve learned from Detroit is that it’s hard to stop the incinerator once it’s built already,” said Villavicencio. “And the consequences really are worse [than you’d think], especially when you see it in person.”
The work is far from done, either in the cities Mother Earth works with in the Philippines or in Breathe Free’s part of Detroit. In the former, there’s a long road ahead to push back against the weakening of the incinerator law, and to bring the composting and waste-management systems that have been working well in San Agustin to more barangays. And in Detroit, more organizing is needed to ensure a “just transition for residents” so that the shutdown of the incinerator doesn’t lead to gentrification that pushes original residents out.
Through it all, though, both communities know that they have solidarity from their colleagues on the other side of the globe. Though the formal program that brought them together has officially ended, Villavicencio and Andresky expect their organizations to stay in touch.
“It’s been a great experience, and hopefully there’ll be more international collaborations like this,” said Villavicencio.
The whole thing has assured him that it’s not just “Western countries who provide technologies or tools to the developing countries,” he adds. “It should be a two-way knowledge exchange.”