The Right To Breathe Clean Air

- Ann Corvera () - November 9, 2008 - 12:00am

Every time she stepped out of the plane it was the same smoggy smell that welcomed her. But unlike many of us, Nina del Rosario and her partners in Clean Technology are not shrugging it off as the same old Manila smell: they are doing something about it by following their noses back to the source – garbage.

Del Rosario and five other clean air advocates are fighting for “the right to breathe clean air,” which, by the way, is what the state is supposed to ensure citizens under Rule 5 of the Philippine Clean Air Act’s implementing rules and regulations.

But the government cannot fight the garbage crisis alone.

Having spent more than half of her life flying, Del Rosario could almost immediately tell if the city where they had landed was tackling its waste problem effectively.

A purser for 21 of the 37 years she had spent with Philippine Airlines, Del Rosario has been to so many places on the planet that it has become instinctive for her to take note of differences and changes in the environment long before climate change entered public consciousness.

“I was contemplating on the use of landfills... if there is any other way to deal with the garbage problem. I read a lot and I self-studied on global warming and climate change,” says Del Rosario, as STARweek sought to find a connection for her extreme career change – from flying the friendly skies to advocating a greener earth.

Her acute awareness of her surroundings – both the social environment and the physical context – kicked in amid concerns over the effects and risks of frequently being at high altitude.

“When you fly at 30,000 feet you are exposed to cosmic radiation. If you fly during the daytime you are exposed to solar radiation, and equatorial if you pass through the equator. Even then I was concerned about this so I researched on it and informed my crew,” she says.

Straight out of high school, Del Rosario was determined to land a job to help support her family, and took interest in flying. Armed with guts and smarts, she breezed through the exams, though she admits knowing “little of what a stewardess actually does.”

A voracious reader, she relied on self-education, like going into “the full research” of the fathers of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and Dr. Edward Teller, so as to raise her and her colleagues’ awareness on the risks of constant radiation, especially on pregnant women.

All her studying came in handy, especially during crisis situations when Del Rosario, as cabin manager, had to take charge. Like the time a woman gave birth in the middle of the flight to San Francisco.

Del Rosario ultimately became godmother to “Palina,” whom she guided to a successful mid-flight birth – at Door 22 of the aircraft.

“A purser has to be very aware of her surroundings and the passengers. Both the mother and the baby were safe but I still had to make sure everything was in order for when US immigration inquires,” Del Rosario says, since they were over US waters at the time.

She recalls, “I had all the bloodied linen placed together because they would look into how we went about it and if we had made a mistake, we would be held accountable. And the placenta, I told them to secure it, maniwala kayo hihingin yan (believe me they’ll ask for it) – and they did. All the documents of the mother were also made available.”

Del Rosario says she chose to stay in the flying career because it is one of the best experiences one could have, in spite of some close encounters such as having to pacify a female passenger who went berserk in flight, or soothing the nerves of her crew and passengers while flying blind or lost over dangerous airspace at some point during the Iran-Iraq war and the Cold War.

In between unnerving but mostly joyous times, Del Rosario found time to invest in formal schooling.

“I sent myself to school... I took up journalism, I managed to finish HRM, veterinary courses. I studied permaculture, composting... all the more I got involved with the environment,” she explains.

And that nagging odor issue never left her mind.

She and Russel Reyes, one of her partners in Clean Technology, recall how a whiff of fresh air in places like Hawaii or Japan and Amsterdam made them wish they had the same refreshing experience in Manila.

“I had sleepless nights researching on this. When I used to fly, I observed how countries managed their waste, especially odor control. I didn’t think it would be my calling later on,” Del Rosario says.

Soon after retiring in 2006, Del Rosario was ready to tackle the source of the unpleasant smell permeating the air – garbage, tons and tons of garbage, which is still disposed of in open dumps even as some cities have taken the step of converting these into controlled dumpsites and sanitary landfills.

Del Rosario holds up a brick to show off Clean Technology’s role in solid waste management by turning residual garbage into something durable.

There’s more: She lines up a teddy bear, baby pillows, indoor and outdoor tiles, paper charcoal and decorative items – all processed from common trash. Tinfoil bags of your favorite junk food and candy wrappers casually discarded on the sidewalks, plastic bags that clog the drainage, even bottles, cans, glass make up Clean Technology’s products.

“All these are made from garbage that is of no value at all,” Reyes points out, not even to junkshops, as we visit Clean Technology’s waste processing facility in Imus, Cavite.

The paper charcoal – ideal for grilling food, says Reyes – comes from paper waste like newspapers and certain cartons that junkshops don’t accept.

The indoor tiles are composed of marble and styropor, which is processed by mixing with used oil that’s melted and “densified for two hours using a plastic densifier,” Del Rosario explains.

“The reason there are sanitary landfills is because of nonbiodegradable waste like plastic. Here we tackle the problem of how to dispose of this type of waste so that the municipality won’t have to spend so much on maintaining landfills,” Reyes explains.

Clean Technology first got involved in distributing odor control products from the US-based VaporTech, using what Reyes describes as environment- and health-friendly as well as hypo-allergenic deodorant and encapsulation ingredients to neutralize the stench.

“The reason we are successful with this is because we are using an odor-control solution that is non-toxic, non-hazardous, as opposed to many composting facilities where fertilizers smell,” Reyes says.

Even as the odor control business grew, they knew it was hardly the solution to the trash problem.

“We thought of ways to address the garbage problem and then we found that the technology is actually available here – like simple shredding or pulverizing waste, mixing and molding that are recognized by the environment department and the Department of Science and Technology, so we got into this,” Reyes states.

Pooling their personal resources, the partners banded together to promote the Clean Technology philosophy – to provide simple yet effective and creative waste solutions via the ideal management program of segregation, recycling non-biodegradable garbage and processing biodegradables into compost.

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