By Danielle Madriaga

It started out as all things do—with the dipping of our toes in the proverbial waters. Only this time, we found our toes in waters filled with plastic.

 

Plastic has truly found its way into every aspect of our lives—in the clothes we wear, the products on our skin, in our canals and streets, and in the food we eat. It is not only the most tangible element of environmental degradation, but also the most ubiquitous as well. My generation grew up with it and the throwaway culture surrounding it: the straws and cups that only lasted one meal, the needless layers of plastic in packaging… and we thought: enough. Actually, too much.

Hence, it was no surprise that addressing plastic pollution was identified as one of the main priorities when the youth of The Climate Reality Project Philippines convened in February for our cluster’s first strategic planning.

A month later, in an opportunity that presented itself through – where else do we lurk these days? – social media, we found the opening for our anti-single-use plastic (SUP) campaign. Greenpeace Philippines had just launched their latest documentary entitled “Ang Huling Plastic,” and we came across a tweet promoting it. The film’s synopsis read, “They say hope floats. But in an ocean filled with plastic waste, can it ever see the light of day?” Needless to say, we were hooked.

We sent Greenpeace an email to schedule a screening for Earth Week 2021 and explore potential areas for collaboration. The initial plan was for the screening’s participants to engage in a post-event activity, where they could apply what they learned from the film. Our team of Youth Coordinators tapped our cluster’s Sustainable Industries Representative and Environmental Stability Representative to co-lead the campaign with us and, with them on board, we were able to hold a planning session with the entire Youth Cluster. We discovered a treasure trove of good ideas with our young Climate Reality Leaders (CRLs). In fact, we ended up with too many to pick just one, or even just a few. We had enough ideas to create an entire month’s worth of challenges.

And so, The Plastic-Free Agenda was born.

We mapped the challenges onto a weekly calendar and conceptualized the details in the days leading up to Earth Week. However, in the process of planning, we realized two things: first, it was best to harness the 501-strong membership of the Youth Cluster instead of restricting it to the event participants; and second, these activities could lead to so much more.

And they did. The Plastic-Free Agenda evolved to become Phase 1 of “What’s SUP?”, a full-fledged anti-single-use plastic (SUP) campaign with multiple phases, in partnership with Greenpeace Philippines.

The solution to the plastic crisis – and truly, any crisis – is systemic change. However, the sense of agency necessary to sustain a crusade towards systemic change starts from within. This was a valuable lesson we learned in our training as Climate Reality Leaders. Before taking on the world, we were taught to take on ourselves: on a personal level, what can I do where I am and with what I’m doing to create change that ripples to a tide, and then to a wave? An acute sense of hope and possibility couples the agency and responsibility that comes with answering those questions, and it was the same approach we wanted to take with our campaign.

Through the four weeks of May, the Month of the Ocean, the Youth Cluster accepted challenge after challenge to act on the plastic crisis from home. As the generation that grew up in the digital age, we also wanted to take advantage of our peers’ perpetual presence online, especially when we all find ourselves still stuck indoors due to the pandemic. Therefore, in addition to accomplishing the challenges, our young CRLs posted their experiences and lessons on social media to enjoin their circles to #SingleOutSingleUse. These can be found on the Highlights of The Climate Reality Project Philippines’ Instagram page, entitled “What’s SUP.” Below are some of them:

PERSONAL WASTE AUDIT & PLASTIC-FREE STARTS WITH ME

Every action must start with education, and this is what the Week 1 challenges of the Plastic-Free Agenda were designed to do. Through documentary films, articles, and petitions, young CRLs learned the impacts of and solutions to the plastic crisis. With this knowledge, they were equipped to take on the succeeding weeks’ challenges that sought to spark change.

Change started with the Personal Waste Audit, which enjoined our young CRLs to collect and document their waste every day for one week, identifying personal wasteful habits and particularly high-plastic areas in their lives, as well as the systems that perpetuated such waste. This challenge showed us that not only is there always something we can do, but we can also always do things better. In its Week 3 follow-up challenge, Plastic-Free Starts With Me, our young CRLs then listed action steps they could take to single out their single-use plastics and continuously become better consumers.

Left: Ari Tanglao’s Day 4 Audit tackling plastic packaging deliveries; Right: Gwyne Tormes’ Day 5 Audit reflecting on possible eco-friendly alternatives for medicine packaging

Gwyne Tormes’ analysis of her personal waste & ways forward

FOCUS GROUP DISCUSSION WITH CLIMATE REALITY INDONESIA

Before launching, we had already slated a Focus Group Discussion as one of the final challenges, so the participants would have an avenue to discuss their experiences and lessons from the entire Plastic-Free Agenda. In the Youth Coordinators’ May planning session with Climate Reality Indonesia’s youth for our collaborative activities and projects, everyone was keen on having another Focus Group Discussion together, as all our previous ones proved to be very value-adding. With the timing falling perfectly in step with The Plastic-Free Agenda, we decided to combine the two into one Focus Group Discussion on the Plastic Crisis in Southeast Asia, which is arguably the region most affected by plastic pollution.

The Focus Group Discussion on the Plastic Crisis in Southeast Asia with Climate Reality Indonesia

PLASTIC-FREE POLICIES WITH MAKESENSE

Though an initial list of challenges was ready and plotted into our calendar for the month, we launched our challenges weekly to allow adjustments based on the performance of related challenges in previous weeks, amongst other things. This also paved the way for collaboration with other organizations, an opportunity provided to us by the Branch, who coordinated with MakeSense and involved them in The Plastic-Free Agenda.

IEC Campaigns are crucial to the success of any movement. They are particularly critical to Anti-Single-Use Plastic now as the House of Representatives was reviewing Proposed Bill 9147, the Single-Use Plastic Products Regulation Act, at the time we launched our own Anti-SUP Campaign. Citizens have pushed against plastic pollution for decades and awareness continues to spread every day. Many, when presented with the solutions to this crisis, are willing to act; often, they just don’t have the information necessary to do so. Now, more than ever, this information needs to be accessible for the passage of HR Bill 9147 to gain traction and be prioritized. The Branch, therefore, connected the Youth Cluster Coordinators to MakeSense for Re_action, a program in which volunteers are assigned bite-sized tasks – a scheme that aligned perfectly with The Plastic-Free Agenda.

The cover art cards of the infographics created by the partnership of The Climate Reality Project Philippines and MakeSense

THE BIG SUPRISE

As the finale of The Plastic-Free Agenda, two groups led by our Young Climate Reality Leaders each organized a webinar to transition our campaign to its second phase, which will be centered on (1) engaging businesses to cut back on their plastic consumption and (2) replicating The Plastic-Free Agenda in schools and universities.

The first group, led by Shar Dismas and Ari Tanglao, hosted Life’s Fantastic Without the Plastic for MSMEs aiming to go sustainable. Kate Mana-Galido of Back-to-Basics Ecostore and Marian Ledesma of Greenpeace guested as resource speakers and participated in the breakout room discussions, wherein event participants were able to ask for their insights and advice.

Andrian Caisip and Alexis Concordia also hosted SUPer Kalat for university students. Paeng Lopez of Health Care Without Harm – Asia and fellow young CRL, Janssen Calvelo of Break Free From Plastic, joined as resource speakers.

#SINGLEOUTSINGLEUSE SATURDAY

The Plastic-Free Agenda wrapped up its first run with a digital strike entitled #SingleOutSingleUse Saturday, with Climate Reality Leaders from various clusters participating.

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The Plastic-Free Agenda rode on the waves made by Climate Reality PH’s week-long celebration of Earth Day and was subsequently launched in May, coinciding with the final weeks of the student semester. Despite being loaded with requirements, Youth Cluster members, who we previously were not able to engage with as much, stepped up and persisted in delivering the mission of The Plastic-Free Agenda, taking each challenge to heart. We believe that our approach to start within, while sometimes tending to feel tedious, is effective. Taking a moment in the hustle and bustle of everyday life to reflect on our own patterns and behavior not only empowered us to build better habits and consume mindfully, but also enabled us to see how our personal choices are often dictated by the systems in place. For example, when it comes to our non-perishable purchases via delivery, we observed the amount of unnecessary plastic that goes into packaging and realized we never asked for it. We weren’t even given the choice to go plastic-free. However, through learning from and with each other, we discovered the sustainable alternatives we need, and the systemic solutions society needs to move towards zero waste. Through the challenges that required us to spark conversations within our circles, from our friends to our families, we were able to enjoin our communities to do the same.

Organizing the campaign in under a month to hold our Ang Huling Plastic screening in time for Earth Day is something we’re immensely proud of. The campaign came together very quickly, and we just kept charging on like a bull that’s seen red and doesn’t know how to stop. That Joe Sabah quote embodies the team quite nicely: “You don’t have to be good to start; you just have to start to be good!” We were keen for What’s SUP to take off, determined to continuously improve it as it moved forward.

That said, in our abounding enthusiasm, we did overlook a few factors, thus picking up several valuable lessons in campaign organizing and community engagement. First, timing is everything – we know The Plastic-Free Agenda could have done even better had it been launched at a time that saw our young CRLs freer from the clutches of school and university. Second, it is admirable to hold lofty ambitions, but hopes and expectations must still be grounded in reality. Upon debriefing, we all agreed that, while preparing the calendar, we thought the lineup of challenges manageable. However, as the weeks went by, though the challenges decreased in quantity, they increased in difficulty and, at one point, became overwhelming.

Hence, moving into Phase 2, we’ll be rolling out a new and improved Plastic-Free Agenda that will further increase its impact by allowing enough time and energy to accomplish each challenge. Several versions of The Plastic-Free Agenda will also be available, as it will be tailored to fit a variety of uses, from student council or student organization events to its integration into school and university classes to public participation. One way or another, you can expect The Plastic-Free Agenda to reach you.

Phase 2 will also see our joint team from Climate Reality PH Youth and Greenpeace PH help businesses single out their single-use plastics, from the shops already aiming to go sustainable that we engaged with in Life’s Fantastic Without the Plastic to our favorite establishments in our communities that are still stuck in business as usual.

As we rally support for the passage of the National Single-Use Plastic Products Regulation Act, a broader IEC Campaign will be mounted to make the plastic crisis and its solutions more digestible. Different modes and platforms of delivery will be explored, particularly (cheer of support, please!) TikTok to capture the attention of and create a long-lasting trend with the youth.

As we work to bring to life our dream of a #BetterNormal and #BetterReality, we must remember that we cannot have a low-carbon, climate-resilient, sustainable Philippines if we are not also plastic-free.

Danielle Madriaga is a Youth Cluster Coordinator of The Climate Reality Project Philippines, Head of its Writers Pool, and Co-Lead of The Plastic-Free Agenda. She also belongs to the Sustainable Industries Cluster of Climate Reality Philippines, being a civil engineer and green building professional but she considers herself a frustrated writer with journalism as her first love.