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Mangangalakal or the waste-pickers

There is nothing left to waste in the Philippines. Everything, including food waste, is recyclable. Let me tell a story about how I came to meet again and again the modern-day food heroes of Naga City. They are everywhere, especially at night.

One late evening, I was driving to buy a few clear books for a project at a nearby mall. All of a sudden, the lights switched off without any warning. That was not an unusual occurrence in the land of constant brownouts. I decided to leave fast after I took out a last-minute order from a veggie store on the ground floor lobby. Then, another brownout. It was good timing because the mall’s employees were already preparing to pack and wrap up by nine, and the supermall would be closed instantly. As I turned toward the car parked just outside the open area, I saw two old, dilapidated vehicles merged from around a dark corner, slowly approaching the parking lot. I knew them. I had befriended the driver, the head of the brood - wife and two young boys- and his teenage nephew a few months back when I chanced upon them in the same place doing the most unusual job in the city.

I had forgotten the name, but I distinctly remember the first miserable-looking vehicle with its noisy creaking sound that quickly caught my attention. That was one ordinary Friday when people usually hang out after a tiring work week to dine out. That time, there was one vehicle; this time, there were two. I saw that they were having a “grander” moment now because it was, according to the driver, “it’s a fiesta,” and waste-picking from the fast food restaurants indeed yielded a mine of “good” food leftovers.

Yes, they are the food pickers who scavenge food from leftovers. They are called the mangangalakal or the waste-pickers of Naga City and nearby towns of Canaman, Magarao, and Pili in Camarines Sur who come late in the evenings to pick up large plastic bags full of left-overs, used cups, and food packs that the big fast food chains throw out daily after a day of operations. They are either people or groups of persons informally engaged in collecting and recovering reusable and recyclable solid wastes from restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools, and the like.

The last Peñafrancia was indeed a feast as well for the waste-pickers. For almost a month, there was an abundance of food, drinks, and merry galore at the hilt from for the estimated one million visitors, pilgrims, and homecomers who flocked to Naga City in honor of the Catholic patroness of Bicol, the Our Lady of the Peñafrancia or INA. For Domeng (not his real name), food waste was plenty and had a more delicious variety.

Domeng was with his entire family when I first met him that evening. As the fast food utility from the fast food threw out the bags full of food waste and used forks, spoons, plastic cups, and food cartons from the kitchen, the whole family went down to organized work. The nephew and the father picked up the bags and distributed these among the other children, aged 12 and 10, and the mother guided each one on how to sort out the “good” from the “bad.” They sorted out the leftover chicken, spaghetti, and french fries that still looked palatable of “masiram pa” and put them in separate plastic containers, complete with the chicken bones and sauces. They re-cook the “good” leftovers and eat them as ordinary food. They call it pagpag. When I asked how the “new” recycled food tasted, everyone smiled and agreed the food was much tastier and enhanced with the mixture of different sauces gathered from the other fastfood restaurants. The children said they have fried chicken and adobong manok all the time!

At 41, Domeng was a daily wage construction worker who came from the countryside of Camarines Sur as poor landless farm hands and tenants in some land estates of prominent land-owning families. He has been a mangangalakal for ten years for “food security,” where they can efficiently scavenge food from the leftovers for their families to eat rather than die hungry. About 50 or more groups scavenge waste around Naga City, with a large concentration of commercial establishments. He thinks their number will continue to grow because there are no jobs available, they cannot go to school, and they do not see any opportunities to change their lives. Waste pickers also generally suffer from health problems because of their toxic environment. According to last week’s OCTA research, 50% of Filipinos consider themselves poor, a significant increase from the previous year.

Recently, DENR Secretary Antonio Loyzaga announced that his office is looking into the role of the waste pickers in the country’s effort to reduce waste and be part of the formal sector of workers. In other countries, they are modern-day heroes who contribute to the economy, public health, and sustainable environment but are primarily left unrecognized. If integrated into the waste management system, the waste pickers if paid well could help revitalize the recycling industry and help save the earth. Walk the talk!


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