Like many other stories, this began innocently enough. I remember it was during the first quarter of 2017 and I was attending lectures on sustainable development. In class, we were discussing some of the environmental challenges riddling the world today—resource depletion, forest degradation, and other such phenomena we all already know a little about, but have chosen to ignore or perhaps just did not see as sufficiently pressing.
If you ask me when the exact moment of awakening came, I wouldn’t be able to tell for I am not sure what it was that triggered the transformation. Was it that documentary on unemployment in Texas? Maybe it was the articles on the wildfires in Indonesia or the war in Syria—all these events that, in one way or another, could be traced to climate change. What I am certain of is that the new discoveries invoked in me a flurry of emotions. Anger at first, then alarm, and when those have settled, helplessness. The damage that resulted from decades of societal neglect and malpractice, how can it be undone by an ordinary person like me? Almost convinced that I could not do anything that would make much difference, I resigned before I even started. But then one morning, as if on cue, I was introduced to ecobricking.
Ecobricks, I found out, are plastic bottles filled to the brim with plastics. Once completely full, these bottles will become rock solid and can be used to build practically anything from modular furniture to public structures. The idea is that by putting plastics into a single bottle, we get to keep track of how much of the stuff we use daily. It also helps reduce the probability of these toxic items eventually winding up in some ill-maintained landfill or, worse, still-clean bodies of water.
To me it looked easy and doable. It does not cost anything. Most importantly, it will help decrease individual waste, which in turn could lead to less global trash. The whole concept made perfect sense. And just like that, I was sold.
I began making my own ecobricks immediately after hearing about the process. It did not demand much effort at first. One empty bottle, some scraps, and before I knew it, I was done with my first brick. “Each wrapper that goes into the bottle is one less piece off the ocean” was like a mantra that constantly played in my mind, motivating me to press on.
But as the days inched into weeks and months, the whole thing became increasingly taxing. Life’s other exigencies began to insist on their precedence. As a result, plastic and similar scraps ended up lying in bundles under my desk. Several empty, would-be-brick plastic bottles stood huddled in a corner of my apartment.
The scraps accumulated and looked more and more accusatory each day. The enthusiasm that initially fueled me turned to uncertainty. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of plastics that I actually use and had to dispose of, despite having cut back on consuming plastic-wrapped items. At the same time, I was feeling guilty and ashamed that I was not doing as much as I thought I could, and should.
It did not help that while people were generally sympathetic about the objectives of the ecobrick initiative, not that many were willing to do it or similar projects. It was frustrating that others did not share my sense of urgency.
But in reality the world today is beset with dilemmas: human rights violations and nuclear or digital war threats, among others. Who is to say that environmental sustainability, specifically plastic pollution, should be anyone’s top priority? As I mulled over the matter, I came to realize that perhaps this is how advocates are made. Amid a myriad of public concerns demanding attention, one hits exceedingly close to home—too personal and relatable—and the individual, after being idle or unaware for so long, is suddenly, irrevocably, disturbed. It is this epiphany that permanently changes the way one sees the world, making it impossible to live life as before—or at least not without a nagging sense of purpose.
However, individual realization does not automatically translate to social change. Consider the “collective action or free-rider problem.” Essentially, this is the notion that individually, people may not find the idea of working for the acquirement of public goods very enticing. After all, trying to bring about large-scale change or create a public good requires certain sacrifices, such as time, personal expenses, and perhaps even loss of life on the part of those who actively push it. If things could be done without our help, why bother? If the advocates succeed, we all gain, anyway. And if they fail, then at least we didn’t waste time, money, or energy with them.
There lies the problem. If one too many people embraced the thought that they are not crucial to an initiative’s success, then the initiative—no matter how necessary—will not even take off.
The collective action problem used to bother me, but for foolish reasons. I thought it was unfair that those who did not labor to preserve the earth would benefit anyway should all efforts on this front eventually yield positive results. But come to think of it, many of the things we now enjoy—like freedom, education and women’s rights—are the product of years of protests and movements of different kinds and from selfless individual and collective acts big and small. It did not matter who benefited. In fact, that was the whole point: for everyone to gain and for the change to be felt at all levels.
Those behind these momentous undertakings—people like me and you—are only human. It is possible that at some point they, too, felt alone, afraid and exhausted. Yet they persevered. Some did not even live to see the fruit of their labors. What could have possibly kept them going?
I think I am beginning to understand it now. About a year into this environmentalism journey, I am coming to terms with the amount of work it requires of me. The garbage problem is nowhere near solved. The “happy ending” I seek is still a long way away. But I am confident that we will get there—one less piece of plastic, one brick at a time.
Diana Nica De Guzman, 28, is from Valenzuela City.
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