By Giselle P. Kasilag
Image by Camille Ante
The first time I met a European client for a meeting at Starbucks, I received a gentle scolding for ordering my drink in a paper cup. We were staying in the coffee shop, he said. There was no reason not to take advantage of the washable ceramic mugs and save the planet from trash. And when the meeting ended, he placed all the remnants of the meal—cups, plates, and all—on a tray and dutifully deposited them to the counter. Apparently, being in my late 30s did not excuse me from being taught to pick up after myself. I got schooled.
In Switzerland, his home country, disposal of trash has gone beyond the simple categories of recyclable, compostable, and residual waste. People are required to separate the different components of a waste item into the specific bins. So a typical take-out coffee cup is broken apart with the plastic top placed in a separate bin from the Styrofoam bottom and the paper sleeve. They have dedicated bins for glass, rubber, and a host of other materials. Batteries are never thrown out, but returned to the maker for recycling. Throwing out unsorted trash requires payment of tax. And if the tax is not paid, the Trash Police will go through each bag of junk without a tax stamp to find out who is responsible for the offense.
In the Philippines, despite the abundance of garbage cans in public spaces, it is hard to miss the amount of trash that litters our streets. It is not uncommon to see car windows being rolled down and candy wrappers thrown out. We seem incapable of tucking the tiny piece of plastic in our pockets until such time we chance upon a proper trash can to dispose of it. If a candy wrapper offends us so much, can we expect that trays of food wrappers and used plastic cups be deposited at designated trash receptacles at fastfood joints? We can’t. We don’t.
Blame it on the maids?
Why is it so hard to throw trash in its proper place?
It’s not that I’m a slob, but a charmed childhood with a household that included two maids has made me complacent about picking up after myself. If anything were out of order, someone in the house would eventually put it to right. Unless I was specifically called, my books could be seen in every nook and cranny of the house, except for the bookshelf where they belong.
While I’m not a social scientist, I wonder if this practice of having household help has raised generations of Filipinos with less than stellar records when it comes to cleanliness. Having help at home is not limited to the upper class. Even in the poorest communities, children are raised with the aid of older family members—a battalion of grandparents, aunts, and uncles who are expected to lend a hand in looking after the children while the parents are at work. And in their devotion to family, they are often found cleaning after the mess of their young wards.
This problem of getting people to throw trash where it belongs is symptomatic of a larger concern, one so big that it became a major issue in the recent national election. Sixteen million Filipinos voted for our new president in the hopes that he will instill discipline to this massively unruly nation.
Why are we so undisciplined? Why do we fail to fall in line? Why do we run red lights and drive against the flow of traffic? Why do we let passengers off in the middle of the street? Why is it normal for us to be at least 30 minutes late? And why are we comfortable about leaving a mountain of trash behind?
A friend of mine had a better question. When did it become okay for us to conduct ourselves this way? When did law and order break down to give rise to such behavior? More important, was there ever a time we were disciplined, or were we always this way to begin with?
The first Asians
I’d like to believe we weren’t. Despite the devastation of World War II, we were among the first Asian nations to rise up and recover. We enjoyed a period of prosperity until the late ’60s. Our roads were clean, our laws were being followed, and crime rates were manageable. People could swim in the Pasig River and photographs of the sunset at Manila Bay were not marred by unsightly and (unhealthy) garbage floating on the water.
We cannot have a pristine city with an undisciplined population. It just doesn’t work that way. Somehow, once upon a time, we used to follow rules religiously and conducted ourselves properly. Something happened that we simply stopped caring and let ourselves go.
I recently came across an article that tried to explain the bad behavior of Chinese tourists that often end up going viral on social media. The writer blamed the lengthy period of poverty in China for the unruliness. Not knowing where their next meal will come from—if it will come at all—they take advantage of any opportunity not just to feed themselves, but to save up for the future, even if it means hoarding trays and trays of shrimp from a restaurant buffet.
It sounds simplistic but it does ring true. And it is something we, Filipinos, can relate to. Having experienced massive poverty beginning in the ’70s, we have come up with the most creative ways to support ourselves through these tough times, finding ways to get ahead in line and bring home more than our fair share to ensure that we and our families survive.
And when we’ve reasoned out to ourselves that it is okay to jump queues, grab more than what we can eat at a buffet, and bribe a traffic enforcer to get out of a ticket, it becomes easier to break other rules. Keeping the city clean ceases to become a priority. We no longer feel compelled to pay proper taxes. And soon, we begin dipping our fingers into other people’s money, including the nation’s coffers.
Bringing back the spark
But the spark is still within us. Deep down, we know what is right from wrong. When we travel to other countries, Filipinos have a reputation for being hard workers. When in Singapore, we never litter. When in Japan, we fall in line. When in Korea, we stand on one side of the escalator so that those in a hurry can pass. When in the US, we follow the traffic laws. When in Canada, we acknowledge that pedestrian is king. And when in Switzerland, we sort out our trash.
We are good people fighting against a very difficult circumstance in life. It is not an excuse, but it gives context to the unruly nation we have become today. As we slowly begin to pull ourselves out of massive poverty, we need to remember who we were once upon a time, and who we can become in the future.
It is these little acts of propriety done repeatedly on a daily basis that instill true discipline—not the infusion of wealth nor the threat of punishment. Our fate is in our own hands, and sometimes, in our own trash.
Giselle P. Kasilag is a writer, curator, and photographer.
In her past life, she was a senior reporter for a business daily. Today, she co-owns Project Art, a creative consultancy firm engaged in curatorial, editorial, and archival work.