Teresa waste management program improves lives

Maria Teresa Valera segregates plastic waste at the Teresa MRF for grinding into pillow stuffing, hollow blocks filling and refuse derived fuel. (WJG)

Life had been difficult for Maria Teresa Valera. At age 15, she went around dump sites to look for recyclables. She was not alone in this undertaking. With her was her mother, and between the two of them, they tried very hard to eke out a living from scavenging — all this exposure to the elements and hazards, including shards of glass and bacteria, for the little food that they could buy out of their earnings for the day.

At 35, Valera is hopeful. With her job at the municipal MRF, she sees a bright future for her children

By the time she was 20 years old and had given birth to her first baby, she decided she had had enough of rummaging through other people’s discards. It was about time she fulfilled her role as a wife. Sadly, this reprieve from the cares of earning for one’s necessities would be brief as she soon had to take on the role of family breadwinner. Her husband lost his job as a driver at the municipal government of Teresa, Rizal. It was a sad and frustrating time.

She could have taken over her husband’s job, except that she did not know how to drive.

But there was one trade that she was adept at no matter how much she hated it.

Scavenging was waiting, but this time, she was not on her own. The municipal government assigned her to its materials recovery facility (MRF) in Barangay Pantay. She welcomed the appointment. This time, her workplace was roofed and safe. It was a far cry from the unsanitary landfills where she had practically grown up.

“When I was widowed, I did not know how I would be able to provide for my family,” says Valera. “I was fortunate to have been offered this job. Now, I am able to send my children to school. With my income, I am able to provide for their needs.”

At 35, Valera is hopeful. With her job at the municipal MRF, she sees a bright future for her children.

Sure daily wage
Before Dionisio Aquino Jr., 44 years old, was hired as a utility worker of the Teresa municipal government in 2004, he was a laborer. Unfortunately, it was an occasional job that did not give him enough earnings.

It was a difficult life for Aquino, who, as a construction worker, could not work when it rains. This would change, though, when he was appointed as one of the 25 staff members of the town’s MRF.

“This time, even if it is raining, our work continues, so I am entitled to my daily wage,” says Aquino, who receives P300 a day as the operator of the pulverizing machine that shreds plastic waste.

With his stable job, Aquino is able to put food on the family’s table and to pay for his children’s education.

Ten years ago, Gerardo Estrada lost his job as a welder in a local mag wheels factory that closed when it went bankrupt. When he found out about a possible job at the MRF, he applied and was accepted.

A number of his friends were surprised that, in his new job, his responsibilities include segregating waste. But to Estrada, it mattered more that “I have a regular job from which I would draw a salary regularly. At the least, my family and I eat three times a day. An empty stomach will not bring us far.”

Gerardo Estrada repairs a pulverizing machine, one of his duties at the Teresa MRF. (WJG)
Dionisio Aquino Jr. stacks hollow blocks made at the MRF using shredded plastic waste. (WJG)

Eco workers
The Teresa MRF has become a livelihood hub, as it has attracted a number of residents who had been willing to work but could not find a stable job or who had to make do as scavengers.

Among those who have been benefited by the MRF as a source of livelihood are three old women, a young single mother and her son and a couple making coco nets out of discarded coconut shells. Today, these former waste pickers earn daily wages.

Just as fortunate are the male workers with various assignments. They turn agricultural waste into compost or garden soil, plant fruits and vegetables in a mini forest, make charcoal out of paper waste and shred plastic waste into bits for making pillows, construction materials and refuse derived fuel (RDF). The men also make hollow and paving blocks, baluster and tiles out of a mixture of pulverized plastic and concrete.

Other than providing livelihood to the residents of Teresa, the MRF has also brought in substantial income to the coffers of the local government. Consumer items and products made by MRF workers include coco nets used for riprapping to prevent soil erosion or to induce vegetation in barren lots; paper charcoal for cooking; compost for farming; the mini forest for food; masonry for building houses, and the RDF for firing a cement plant furnace.

Last year, the Teresa government earned P1 million from sales of the MRF, according to Lina Ignao, the facility supervisor.

The earning is only incidental as the MRF is not an enterprise for profit, but is an essential component of the Teresa solid waste management program. Its establishment is in keeping with Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, which requires every LGU to eliminate waste products by turning biodegradable waste to compost and fertilizer, to sell recyclable waste for reuse and reprocessing and to divert residual waste.

Residual wastes, such as cellophane, snack wrappers, cigarette packaging, shampoo sachets and the like, in turn, are used for making hollow blocks, bricks, balusters, tiles and RDF. This was revealed by Engr. Marlon Pielago, Teresa municipal environment and natural resources officer (Menro), who explained the need “of diverting residual waste by grounding and pulverizing them and embedding them in construction materials. This is better than dumping them back into the landfill, which will entail additional cost since they will need to be hauled back.”

Lina Ignao, supervisor of the Teresa’s MRF. (WJG)

Industrial partner
Republic Cement has taken on a key role in Teresa’s innovative waste management program, which is sustained through the support of the community, barangay and the private sector.

In making hollow blocks embedded with residual plastics, the MRF sources its supply from Republic Cement, which sells its cement at a discount. The MRF is thus able to produce hollow blocks at a lower cost and sell it at P1 or P2 lower than the market price, which benefits local consumers.

According to Pielago, a memorandum of agreement with Republic Cement stipulates the MRF to supply the company’s plant with RDF for its cement kilns twice a month. In turn, a ton of RDF is paid with eight bags of cement. The cement goes to the barangay to encourage it to supply the MRF with plastic waste for conversion into RDF.

With the cement plant needing 15 tons of RDF per month, each of Teresa’s nine villages can supply 1.6 tons of residual waste per month, good for 13 bags of cement needed for local construction. Pielago estimates that every barangay can earn as much as P35,000 worth of cement per year out of plastic waste.

On the local level, the partnership between the MRF and the cement plant is already producing benefits.

“The main benefit is you divert trash. Instead of bringing it to the landfill, you eliminate it from the system,” says Pielago.

He adds the LGU earns money, which it can use for further improving its waste management program. The people become aware of segregation and make it a practice.

Barangay leaders are happy and the village gets cleaner.

As for the cement plant, it avoids the use of coal, which produces a dirtier emission while saving on cost as traditional fuels are more expensive. If all cement manufacturers nationwide adopt the scheme, the benefit in terms of waste reduction, employment and countryside development is exponential.

The MRF workers themselves are proud of their jobs.

“Before, there was really a lot of waste around,” says Valera. “Now, it is less because it is being segregated.”

“I’m happy because our town became known in the Philippines,” she says, referring to the numerous national and regional awards received by Teresa for its effective implementation of RA 9003.

Valera adds she is glad that her work contributes to the success of Teresa’s waste management program and to industries like cement manufacturers.

For his part, Estrada says the waste management program of Teresa not only provides jobs. By making RDF, he says plastic waste will no longer end up in rivers and instead be useful.

Lives better
The impact of industries in national development cannot be underestimated as manufacturers play an important role in safeguarding the environment. Their contribution in terms of providing jobs, however, has the most enduring social impact.

Ordinary people like Valera, Aquino and Estrada are among the thousands of workers indirectly employed in the value chain of the cement industry alone. The MRF and its jobs of producing fuel from plastic waste would not have been viable if not driven by demand from cement manufacturers that use RDF in their production.

“I want my two children to finish their education when the time comes, so they will not be like me who did not finish school,” says Valera, who stopped going to school after Grade 6.

With a decent and stable job at the MRF, their dreams have become attainable.