Mong Palatino

Blogging about the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific since 2004


@mongster is a Manila-based activist, former Philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of Asia-Pacific affairs.

Written for Bulatlat

Next to tree planting, the most popular green initiative of politicians today is the adoption of ‘ban plastic’ ordinances. The new normal is the total dislike for anything plastic and the coming together of various stakeholders in the community to save the future generation from the scourge of garbage, and plastic in particular.

But the idea of ‘ban plastic’ was not always popular. Just a few years ago, there was a strong lobby against it and the public (including mass media) accepted the reasoning that it is simply impossible and irrational to ban plastic in the whole city or municipality.

There was widespread support for the waste segregation movement, and the state even incorporated the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra in the education apparatus. But ban plastic? Authorities said it won’t work because it can’t be done. Besides, consumers allegedly preferred plastic because it is durable and non-replaceable even though it is non-biodegradable.

So how did ‘ban plastic’ become mainstream? Most likely the alarming impact of worsening pollution convinced many people about the need to enact drastic measures to reverse the rapid deterioration of the environment. But there was one more important factor: Some groups or networks of environmental activists stubbornly pushed the ‘ban plastic’ proposal and they persevered until it gained popular backing.

The public didn’t wake up one day and magically acquired an aversion against plastic. The idea came from somewhere, and it was processed through painstaking struggle in various ideological sites like schools, media, government agencies, and public spaces.

The clamor for ‘ban plastic’ was created by embarking on an aggressive education and information drive, network building, and intense lobbying. It became a material force because somebody and even anonymous nobodies fought hard to make the public understand and accept the necessity of the supposedly utopian idea.

Today, ‘ban plastic’ is no longer a quixotic dream. In fact, it has become a safe advocacy. Politicians are happy to sponsor it, the media finally understood it, and the public are ready to embrace it. A strong constituency has emerged that is capable of defeating the opposition lobby (mostly from the industrial sector).

Government records will reveal how the ‘ban plastic’ ordinance was passed – when was it filed, when did the committee hearing take place, who served as resource persons, who co-authored the measure, how many votes it got during the deliberation – but they do not provide us the whole and accurate story.

The more interesting but understated history was how green activists never gave up to achieve their goal. Because before ‘ban plastic’ became a common idea, so simple that it could be reduced already into a government ordinance, it was first a radical and incomprehensible proposal. It took several years of researching, pamphlet and leaflet making, forum organizing, school hopping, media writing, government lobbying, and rallying in the streets before ‘ban plastic’ became a popular public opinion of our time.

It is now easy to map the number of local governments which have already adopted ‘ban plastic’ laws. But nobody is counting the number of primers, community assemblies, school meetings, and rallies that made ‘ban plastic’ legislation possible.

The ‘ban plastic’ ordinance, though the most familiar and effective document in the advocacy, is actually the least creative form compared to the numerous icons, brochures, research papers, information materials, and placards made by activists.

Nevertheless, why complain over trivial matters when the goal has been achieved.

Still, it is interesting that nobody is claiming ownership of the ‘ban plastic’ movement. No group has dared to come forward to impose a patent or copyright on it. Perhaps it is a good thing because it is a useful reminder about the value of activism. When in doubt about the relevance of activism, always remember the ‘ban plastic’ phenomenon.

Many of the public goods we enjoy today are actually legacies of the brave campaigns of activists of previous generations. Labor benefits, voting rights, gender equality, free speech, basic education – the list goes on. But unlike capitalists who wanted to gain super profits from the goods they are producing, activists are not motivated to impose a price on what they have accomplished.

Unlike a businessman philanthropist who never forgets to remind us about what he is doing for the community, an activist always reminds the community about what they have done successfully together and what they should continue to be doing for the sake of the greater good.

But where are the ‘ban plastic’ activists? Probably some are actively immersed in a new radical advocacy while others could be quietly conspiring to create new truths and popular opinions. They have willingly allowed others to continue and build on what they have started since they are now focused on other challenges. Because for many activists, it is more important (and more fun too) to be engaged in radical causes rather than simply working for advocacies that are already deemed safe by the state.

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