What to make of Quezon City's supposedly 'green' policies?
It's always good news when a city declares it wants to go green.
Going green has become synonymous to sustainable, hip, cool, out-of-the-box. It's a great marketing ploy. It promotes such a positive, clean image.
But becoming a genuinely eco-friendly city takes more than platitudes and green-colored posters. Being truly green takes hard work. In fact, in most cases, it takes a real leap of faith and a risk-taking mindset.
While covering environmental news, I've come across some new policies being adopted by Quezon City, the largest and most populated city in Metro Manila.
Like Pasig and Taguig, Quezon City prides itself for its green initiatives. It's the city of the COMET electric jeepney, the Quezon Memorial Circle, and Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte's urban vegetable gardens.
Half-hearted green policies are only one step away from being greenwash.
These are great initiatives. I've featured the e-jeepney, I enjoy going to parks, and I'm fascinated by urban farming.
But some of QC's purportedly "green" policies, especially those related to garbage management, come across as half-baked.
And I would argue that half-hearted green policies are only one step away from being greenwash.
I am speaking of two policy initiatives.
One is the plastic bag fee already being implemented in certain commercial establishments in the city. Shoppers are asked to pay P2 ($0.04) every time they have to use the store's plastic shopping bags.
The charge is supposed to make them remember to bring reusable bags when they do their grocery, or else they spend an extra P2.
The fees collected by the stores, which now amount to P60 million ($1.3 million), will then go to green projects of the city and its barangays.
The second policy, or would-be policy, is the imposition of a garbage hauling fee on all residents. Depending on the size of your house, as QC resident, you will pay between P100 to P500 ($2.2 to $11) a year for the city to bring your garbage to its landfills.
That would mean paying only P0.30 to P1.40 every day, and yet a resident complained, leading the Supreme Court to declare the ordinance unconstitutional.
The ordinance stated that the collected fees would be used to reward barangays and homeowners associations that reuse, reduce, and recycle.
No green revolution here
What do these two policies have in common?
- They require additional payment from taxpayers.
- They promise to use the payment to "reward" citizens for green projects.
Is it just me or doesn't this sound tautological?
Firstly, the city can and should implement green projects using its existing funds. Why put the burden on its constituents who are already paying taxes (or should be anyway)?
Becoming sustainable, efficient, and protective of the environment is not an "extra" job that needs to be funded by "extra" fees. It should be mainstreamed into the city government's daily tasks and should be funded by its main budget.
Secondly, why a reward mechanism for green projects that, by law, are the city government's to implement?
One of the barangay projects the city wants private sector to fund using plastic bag fees is a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) that promotes recycling, reusing, and composting.
But according to the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, each barangay is required to have an MRF anyway.
Is City Hall relying on the rewards program for these MRFs to be built, or will it make sure all barangays have an MRF with or without this program?
By giving out these vital projects (one is a river-cleaning initiative) as rewards, City Hall sends a message that these are only "nice to haves" instead of "must dos."
It doesn't sound like a green revolution to me.
More on the plastic bag fee, specifically.
Why not a total plastic bag ban? Makati, Mandaluyong, Pasig, and a host of other cities are implementing it.
Under the ban, stores are required to shift from plastic bags to paper bags for dry goods. If not, they are fined. In some cases, business permits are revoked and someone goes to jail.
But QC Councilor Joy Delarmente, who authored the plastic bag fee ordinance, said they decided not to jump in right away out of respect for commercial establishments that would be affected.
The "middle ground" they arrived at was the plastic bag fee.
But I don't think it's middle ground at all. I think it unduly favors the commercial establishments at the cost of an effective plastic policy.
Is the plastic bag fee even effective in attaining its goal: to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in the streets and landfill?
The stores are saved from the hassle of overhauling their supply chain to replace plastics with paper. Some have still done so (like National Bookstore Katipunan) but they are not required to.
They also save on their CSR budget because now their customers are technically paying for it. You can be sure that these stores will get free "advertising" when their plastic bag fees go to funding a barangay's solar street lamps.
Back to basics
More importantly, is the plastic bag fee even effective in attaining its goal: to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in the streets and landfill?
Apparently, the city government is only about to find out. A trash characterization study to check on plastic bag reduction will only be completed in 2015, Vincent Vinarao of the city's environment department told me.
This means that we will only know if the policy was worth it 3 years after it was created.
What if the study concluded that it was not effective? Ahhh, at least the money went to green projects.
Does the P2 fee really make you think twice about just using a plastic bag for convenience, especially if you forgot to bring a reusable shopping bag?
My mom, who does our grocery, admits to just paying the P2 to get it over with. Sure, it's money, but for the majority of people who can afford to go shopping, it's also just P2. At most, you just lost the cash equivalent of two pieces of Mentos.
But genuinely "green" projects do not even need to impose costs for them to be effective. At the heart of green projects is their efficiency, their cost-effectiveness, their bare-bones mechanism.
To be eco-friendly is to go back to basics, to strip processes of the unnecessary, and tackle the problem at source.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Nowadays, to go back to basics is to overturn entire systems built on familiar complications.
A truly green QC would decentralize its garbage management system, install MRFs in each barangay, and lessen the number of trips its dump trucks make (and the city spends for).
A truly green QC would enforce a total plastic ban. A truly green QC would not wait for additional fees to clean its dirty rivers. – Rappler.com