Garbage pickers collect food waste, help fight climate change


MALABON, Philippines — Marilene Capentes pushes a cart through the streets of Malabon town just north of Manila every morning except Sunday, collecting bags of segregated garbage.

Places food scraps in a designated container so they can be composted at your local recycling facility. The rest of the waste goes into separate containers and the recyclables are sold later.

Capentes, who is 47, said the trash was mixed up — and heavy — until a local environmental nonprofit began asking residents to separate it a few years ago. The Mother Earth Foundation in the Philippines, as a member of the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives, is trying to prevent food waste from going to landfills, where it emits methane as it decomposes and rots. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas responsible for about 30% of today’s global warming.

Across the way from Capentes, 50-year-old resident Vilma Mendoza now understands the importance of diverting organic waste from landfills to reduce methane emissions in an effort to limit future warming.

“If you mix the biodegradable with the non-biodegradable and throw it in the landfill, our environment will suffer,” he said.

Preventing waste from going to landfills, incinerators or the environment is a proven, affordable climate solution, according to GAIA. The international environmental organization, which advocates waste reduction, supports its members, including waste collection groups around the world, working with government officials to set up systems to separate and collect organic waste and set up facilities to compost it.

This is especially the case in the Global South where waste collectors already work in many communities and cities. Millions of people around the world make a living as waste pickers, collecting, sorting, recycling and selling materials such as plastics, paper, copper and steel.

The world needs better systems for dealing with waste because the way we do it contributes to climate change, said Kait Siegel, the waste director of the methane pollution prevention group at the environmental nonprofit Clean Air Group. He said diverting and treating organics is “absolutely” an important way to reduce methane emissions.

“We’ve seen these solutions make a difference in countries around the world,” he said. “We all create organic waste in our daily lives. And that’s something we can deal with, working to slow the pace of climate change.”

There is more interest in this strategy now because the Global Methane Commitment, which began in November 2021, has pushed countries to take a hard look at their methane sources. More than 100 countries, including the United States, have agreed to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030, although other big methane emitters have balked.

Methane is a more powerful heat trap than carbon dioxide, but it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere nearly as long – about 12 years compared to centuries. Many see reducing methane emissions as a critical, quick way to limit further warming.

The largest anthropogenic source is agriculture, followed by the energy sector, which includes emissions from coal, oil, natural gas and biofuels, according to the International Energy Agency.

The waste sector is the third largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions worldwide, accounting for around 20% of the total. About 60% of waste in communities in the Global South is organic, according to GAIA. That’s 130 tons of garbage per day in Malabon City alone, population 380,000.

At a material recycling facility in Malabon, organic waste collected from households is turned into compost that goes to a community garden to grow vegetables. Some of the food waste goes to a biodigester that breaks it down to turn it into biogas, which is then used to cook vegetables for the waste workers to eat. It’s a full circle, said Froilan Grate, executive director of GAIA Asia Pacific. Workers typically have a route of about 200 households, Grate added.

Grate, who is based in Manila, said there are challenges in installing these systems in new places. It costs money upfront to set up a composting facility, residents and local officials must be educated on the importance of waste segregation, bins must be provided for households that cannot afford more than one, and sometimes just it is not a priority. Also, unlike recyclables and metals, there isn’t much of a market for organic materials, so waste workers must be paid for the service they provide to keep the system running.

But Grate is confident these challenges can be overcome. More people are making the connection between reducing methane and addressing climate change, so there’s more interest from cities and philanthropic groups that could help with start-up costs, he said. And cities are seeing the benefits of proper waste management because it reduces disease-causing pests, helps ensure cleaner drinking water, provides waste workers with sustainable lifestyles and helps the planet, he added.

In the Philippines, cities pay waste workers with the money they save in filtering fees by sending fewer trucks to landfills.

In Brazil, one of the world’s top five methane emitters, there is now interest in supporting waste pickers, investing in waste recycling and fighting climate change since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in January, said Victor Hugo Argentino de Morais Vieira. zero waste consultant and researcher at Instituto Pólis.

A large composting site has been operating for years on the northeast coast in Bahia, an area popular with tourists. Garbage collectors themselves have developed a system to collect organic waste from hotels and restaurants, but few other garbage collectors collect food waste.

Jeane dos Santos in Salvador said she started working as a waste collector at the age of 7. He is now 41 years old and a member of Brazil’s National Waste Pickers Movement. It collects and sells recyclable waste, although much of it turns out to be either non-recyclable plastics or contaminated with food scraps.

Dos Santos is part of a cooperative of waste collectors whose income comes solely from the recyclables they sell. He said he was interested in collecting organic waste if it could be separated, because that way recyclables would not be contaminated and waste collectors could make money if the state supported these efforts.

“I earn enough to survive. However, I would like to earn more if we had proper government support,” he said. “For now, we’re providing a public service and we’re not remunerating that.”

Local waste collectors could educate households and the community about properly separating their waste, dos Santos added.

In South Africa, it is also not common to separate organic waste. But in the last two years it has been tested in a large market in the port of Durban.

“It could be a game changer for the continent,” said Niven Reddy, the Africa regional coordinator for GAIA. “It can be tried and tested. If it works in Africa in one place, it’s likely to work somewhere else – 400,000 people pass through that market a day.”

GAIA leaders like Reddy look to the systems established in the Philippines as a model.

“I feel it demonstrates the leadership of the Global South on issues like methane reduction,” he said. “I think it’s really impressive. And I feel like it’s very applicable.”

McDermott reported from Providence, Rhode Island.

The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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