Waste pickers collect food waste to help fight climate change

MALABON, Philippines (AP) — Marilene Capentes pushes a cart through the streets of the city of Malabon, north of Manila, every morning except Sunday, collecting bags of sorted garbage.

She puts the food waste in a designated bin so it can be composted at the local recycling facility. The rest goes into separate containers and the recyclables are later sold.

Capentes, who is 47, said the trash used to be all jumbled – and heavy – until a few years ago, a local environmental nonprofit started asking residents to separate it. The Mother Earth Foundation in the Philippines, as a member of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, is trying to prevent food waste from ending up in landfills, where it emits methane as it breaks down and rots. Methane is an extraordinarily powerful greenhouse gas that is responsible for about 30% of today’s global warming.

On the Capentes route, 50-year-old resident Vilma Mendoza now understands the importance of diverting organic waste from landfills to reduce methane emissions and try to limit future warming.

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

It is important to prevent waste from entering landfills, incinerators or the environment a proven, affordable climate solution, according to GAIA. The international environmental organization that works to reduce waste supports its members, including waste collection groups around the world who work with government officials to set up systems to separate and collect organic waste and set up facilities to compost it.

This is happening especially in the Global South, where garbage pickers are already working in many communities and cities. Millions of people worldwide make a living as garbage collectors, collecting, sorting, recycling and selling materials such as plastics, paper, copper and steel.

The world needs better systems for dealing with waste because existing ways contribute to climate change, said Kait Siegel, waste sector leader on the methane pollution prevention team at the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force. She said diverting and treating organic matter is “absolutely” a key way to reduce methane emissions.

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

There is more interest in this strategy now because the global methane pledge, which started in November 2021, has urged countries to take a close look at their methane sources. More than 100 countries, including the United States, have agreed to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, although other major methane emitters have refused.

Methane is better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, but doesn’t stay in the atmosphere nearly as long — about 12 years versus centuries. Many see reducing methane emissions as a critical and quick way to curb further warming.

The largest anthropogenic source is agriculture, closely 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 globally, accounting for about 20% of total emissions. According to GAIA, about 60% of the waste in communities in the Global South is organic. In the city of Malabon alone, with 380,000 inhabitants, that is 130 tons of waste per day.

At a materials recycling facility in Malabon, organic waste collected from households is turned into compost for use in a community vegetable garden. Some of the food waste goes into a bio-digestion furnace, which breaks it down to convert it into biogas, which is then used to cook vegetables for the waste workers. It’s a full cycle, said Froilan Grate, executive director of GAIA Asia Pacific. The workers typically have a stretch of about 200 households each, Grate added.

Grate, who is based in Manila, said there are challenges in setting up these systems in new locations. There is an upfront cost to set up a composting facility, residents and local officials need to be educated on the importance of sorting waste, trash cans need to be provided for households that can’t afford more than one, and sometimes this just isn’t a priority. Also, unlike recyclables and metals, there isn’t a large market for organic materials, so waste workers must be paid for the services they provide in order for the system to work.

But Grate is confident these challenges can be overcome. More and more people are making the connection between reducing methane and fighting 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 sound waste management because it reduces disease-causing bugs, ensures clean drinking water, provides a sustainable livelihood for waste workers and helps the planet, he added.

In the Philippines, cities pay waste workers with the money they save on garbage fees by sending fewer truckloads to landfills.

In Brazil, one of the top five emitters of methane in the world, since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in January, there has been interest in supporting garbage collectors, investing in waste recycling and tackling climate change, said Victor Hugo Argentino de Morais Vieira , a zero-waste consultant and researcher at Instituto Pólis.

A large composting plant has been in operation for years on the north-east coast in Bahia, an area popular with tourists. Local garbage collectors have developed their own 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 garbage collector when she was 7 years old. She is now 41 and a member of the National Movement of Waste Collectors of Brazil. She collects and sells recyclable waste, but it turns out that much of it is either non-recyclable plastic or contaminated by food waste.

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

“I make enough to survive. However, I would like to earn more if we had the right government support,” she said. “We are currently performing a public service and are not being rewarded for it.”

Local garbage collectors could educate households and society on how to properly separate their waste, dos Santos added.

In South Africa it is also not common to separate organic waste. But for the past two years, it’s been being tested at a large market in the port city of Durban.

“It can be a game changer for the continent,” said Niven Reddy, the Africa regional coordinator for GAIA. “It can be tested and tried out. If it works in one place in Africa, it probably works elsewhere – 400,000 people walk through this market every day.”

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

“I feel like it demonstrates the leadership of the Global South on issues like methane reduction,” he said. “I think it’s really impressive. And I have the feeling that it can be implemented very well.”


McDermott reported from Providence, Rhode Island.


The Associated Press’s climate and environmental reporting is supported by several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative Here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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