Rethinking recycling

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Marvin A. Tort-125


Rethinking recycling

About 18 years ago, I had a management professor at AIM who wasn’t completely sold on recycling. In one class discussion, Ning Lagman, whom I believed has retired from teaching, expressed the opinion that recycling would be insignificant in a production process that reduced or minimized, if not eliminated, “waste.” Without waste, there will be nothing to recycle.

Ning Lagman came to mind with news about how the world is now grappling with a garbage crisis after China closed its doors to much of the plastic “recyclables” from developed countries. China has become choosy with garbage, and rightly so. It now wants quality recyclables that are easier to process, and that have gone through some process of cleaning, and not just sorting.

And all this time, I thought many rich countries did their own recycling. It turns out, a big bulk of the recycling is done in China. National Geographic notes that about 45% of the world’s plastic waste exports go to China for recycling. The rich countries don’t recycle their own plastic garbage. They just bale them, and then ship them. China has been doing the dirty work for them.

Plastic waste imports into China, based on 2016 statistics from National Geographic, came mostly from these top 10 sources: Japan, the United States, Thailand, Germany, Belgium, Philippines (6th), Australia, Indonesia, Canada, and South Korea. So, with China now being selective, such wastes have been accumulating in these countries since the start of this year.

The process has always been “reduce, reuse, recycle.” In short, the cycle starts with reducing waste, and not recycling it. After all, with reduction and reuse, perhaps there will be little left for recycling. However, in the case of the Philippines, for instance, it doesn’t seem like there is any concerted effort to reduce and reuse garbage. And we have limited recycling capabilities.

We, the residents of big cities and towns, always assume that garbage trucks will come regularly, and that these service providers will take charge of collecting, sorting, and disposing our garbage for us. We have little care or concern for where our garbage will end up, eventually. We simply assume that our local officials, in exchange for our votes, will take care of the problem for us.

Personally, I don’t know where my garbage goes, whether they end up in landfills or are baled and shipped out to China. Maybe this should change. Perhaps it is time we take note of what and how much we actually throw out. Disposing becomes less of a problem if there is a conscious effort to reduce and reuse. Reducing and reusing, unlike recycling, means taking more responsibility for one’s own waste, and not simply passing on the problem of disposing to others.

This is why I cannot understand why the Department of Agriculture (DA) now insists on making millers and traders sell rice in retailing bags of different sizes, pretty much like shampoo and liquid soap sold in sachets. Rather than promoting the reduction of waste and the elimination of single-use plastic bags, this initiative will simply compound the garbage problem.

As for the DA claim that it is unsanitary to retail rice in bins rather than in sealed plastic bags, this has been the practice since time immemorial in most markets, and we are not any worse for it. I have not seen research data and scientific studies from DA to prove that selling rice in bins has made people sick, or that selling rice in sealed plastic bags makes rice safer and healthier.

Also, we continue to sell other produce like fruits and vegetables and meats “openly” in markets. We have not mandated the use of sealed plastic bags for them, for “sanitary” purposes. So, why should rice be any different? Considering that rice was never meant to be eaten raw, unlike fruits, some vegetables, and even some fish. So, why require “plastic bags” for rice?

“Asyong Aksaya” was an advocacy campaign that ran in the 1970s to popularly promote energy conservation and saving resources. In the 1990s, we had a “Yosi Kadiri” to advocate against smoking and to promote a healthier lifestyle. I think a new campaign is now in order, but one that takes “reduce, reuse, recycle” to a new level. People, down to the household level, should start realizing the urgency particularly of reducing their own waste and keeping their garbage to a minimum.

I received a number of comments recently regarding my column on retirement, particularly raising the retirement age to older than 65 years. A couple of readers, both seniors, believe that old people still have plenty to contribute to the economy and society.

One of them says that at 79 summers young, he is still “actively working, writing, building and fixing in [his] workshop, and active in various business and social organizations.” He adds, “I believe that’s what keeps me alive.” And this, to me, is the crux of the matter. I truly believe that having a reason to get up in the morning is a strong motivation for one to keep going.

Yet another reader, a government worker, offered a different perspective, as well as the clarification that for public servants in the bureaucracy, mandatory retirement is actually already at 65 and not 60 years, as I had written. But, upon reaching the age of 60, government employees may opt to retire, voluntarily.

And this is what she had to say about raising the retirement age: “In my experience, I know more people who continue working after reaching the age of 60 because they said they have nothing else to do if they retired, and that they’ll be bored; and, that they want to maximize the benefits they’re getting.”

In contrast, she cited the case of her superior at work, who would rather retire early (upon finishing 15 years of government service). Some people opt to retire so they can finally start on other things they want to do or accomplish in life, like teaching, writing a book, or traveling, she said. She added, “They argue that they won’t be able to enjoy their pension if they retire at an older age.”

She also noted that “there are people who are still capable and willing to work even at 65. However, these people are rare to find (in my opinion). There are people who, upon reaching old age, lose their passion for, and commitment to, work. They reason out that ‘they’re already retiring’ and no longer strive to learn new things (technology, most especially) and innovate in the workplace, or do more of what is expected of them.”

I cannot agree more with our readers, and I thank them for their comments. Perhaps it is rare for people, in their advanced age, to still have passion and strong desire to work – or be healthy enough for it. But, in parting, I offer this thought: Perhaps we can rekindle in our seniors the passion and the desire to work, and to be productive, by creating the opportunity for them to remain gainfully employed, or to be entrepreneurial, even in their twilight years.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council