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FEATURE STORY June 4, 2019

Meet the Innovator Battling Plastic Waste in the Philippines: Julian Rodriguez


Marine plastics have put our oceans in danger. By 2050, it is estimated the volume of plastic will be greater than that of fish in the sea. Countries in East Asia and the Pacific contribute the most to marine plastic pollution. For World Oceans Day 2019, we are shining a spotlight on innovators working to stem the tide of marine debris in the epicenter of this crisis.

Julian Rodriguez is the founding member of Plastic Tides, an NPO focused on “combining adventure and science to fight plastic pollution.”

Being a Filipino and living in the third biggest contributor to pollution in the ocean makes me want to do something about it. Right now, we’re looking for people who are willing to go out into the environment and in their own way, contribute to the cause.

Just recently, our team at Plastic Tides Philippines teamed up with the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission to bring in volunteers to help clean up the 47 tributaries of the Pasig River. In just half a day, we were able to collect about 1,500 kilograms of trash! The PRRC only has about 45 people assigned to help clean up the Pasig River. It’s a daunting task for one person to clean up a whole tributary.

In the Philippines, we want to be guides for people who want to start their lives of zero-waste, environmentalism, and understand what it means to be a warrior for the environment. Our goal is to enlist everyone we can in this fight for against plastic. What we want for people to understand is that they have their own expertise they can contribute to the address the issue of plastic.

We are beginning to use our network to connect poor coastal communities with social enterprises, so that the coastal community scavengers can supply the social enterprises with plastic trash for their products like stand-up paddleboards made entirely from marine plastics. We are also introducing stand up paddleboards to local government for researchers, rangers, and marine watchers to use as an alternative to large inflatable motorized rafts.

Why and how is plastic an issue for oceans/waterways in the Philippines?

Imagine that in 1907, the very first bit of plastic was made. That very first bit of plastic still exists today, if it hasn’t been degraded into millions of pieces and spread out into our drinking water. This war on plastics has been going on longer than we’ve ever been aware of it. Slowly, we are creating the thing that is killing us. This is a global problem, but the problem of plastic in the Philippines is one that needs to have a localized global solution. Right now, we are using an estimated 48 million shopping bags or even more in the Philippines. These are 48 million plastic bags that don’t degrade, that don’t disappear, that don’t break up into little pieces. They just stay in our environment. This is the type of fight that I want to show people.

During our outdoor expeditions, we document canals being clogged by the sheer amount of plastic. Our marine bio diversity is being threatened by the plastic that we are producing and throwing into the water. We already have evidence. Darrel Blactchley, a marine biologist and environmentalist from Davao, opened up a dead beaked whale found in Compostela Valley and found 40 kilograms of plastic in its stomach.

In the Philippines, our problem would be poverty and the amount of sachets that we use every day. We can’t just say we’ll ban everything and be done with plastic because there are people who rely on these. Sometimes people’s lives depend on single-use plastics. We can’t just discount that. This is another issue that we need to address.

We’ve lived without plastic long before it was created in the Philippines. We wrapped our food in banana leaves ever since. We’ve found ways to preserve our food better and we’ve found different natural alternatives. The Philippines has always been that way. Since we’ve been made dependent on single-use plastics, we’ve never grown independent of them.

"There is a need to bring in citizens, not just government officials and employees, into the fight against pollution. The effort needs a more crowd-sourced approach to help with the clean-up. That’s where we come in. We combine adventure and science to entice people to join the fight against pollution in our waters. "
Julian Rodriguez
Plastic Tides


The team from Plastic Tides and the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission

What Impact do you hope your work achieves?

What we want to do is create meaningful experiences that show how important it is to make environmentalism personal. It’s not just about changing people’s minds and hearts, we want legislation to lock in these changes and to push people to implement changes. We want to push the buttons in society, to reach the right people who can make these changes happen.

We’re trying to target politicians and government officials who are working in the cities right by the Pasig River. If they enact these changes in their own communities living right by the river, then we can eliminate a lot of the trash entering the river through the tributaries. Whatever trash they’re creating in their own cities, goes into the drains and canals.  We want to show that there are alternative ways to dealing with the plastic trash. Even in their own communities, they can be self-correcting and self-policing.

While working with the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, we saw that they did not have the proper cleaning equipment and materials. They are at the front line of cleaning up the river, but they don’t have enough equipment, they don’t have gloves, sometimes they don’t even have gas for their motors. It’s a budget issue. With the gaps in the process, our volunteers come in and help provide whatever they can and be part of the cleanup process. If we could help improve the method and frequency of these cleanups by filling up a whole schedule with the Commission and coming up with paddle boarding experiences in the Pasig River to clean up, then we’re innovating the way the river’s being cleaned.

We’re trying to start grassroots. We’re trying to start with kids to have personal experiences through our work and hopefully, in the long run, we can find new opportunities for communities to monetize through ecotours, to teach coastal communities. It’s not going to be just the team; the communities will be empowered for ecotours or environmental paddle boarding experiences. The more people are in the water, the more they care for it.

What motivates / inspires you?

I went through a traumatic experience a few years ago. To help my PTSD, I went out on paddle boarding trips, filmed, and exposed myself to nature. By replacing my negative intense experiences with positive ones is how I learned to heal. Experiencing nature taught me that there is such a thing as positive trauma because that brush with death woke me up and made me realize that I have to stand for something.

Paddleboarding while cleaning up the ocean is such an experience. I have such a sublime experience in nature while somehow helping the environment by removing floating debris from the water. This kind of experience for people lasts. That’s what I realized for myself, that by doing this, I’m also helping other people understand their own challenges in life and use these as fuel or motivation to push further than anyone has gone before. That’s why we circumnavigated the Taal Volcano on paddle boards to film the most underrated beautiful body of water nearest to Manila and document the trash that’s beginning to ruin it and clean-up as much as we could over the 40 kilometers we paddled.

How can people get involved?

We use our personal networks and social media to get people interested and involved in our expeditions. Our volunteers also help spread the word. There are only a few of us right now. We would really like for more people to join our expeditions, experience it. If you find that it’s something you want to keep doing, we will put you through a 3-day ambassador program. Through this, you’ll be able to talk more about plastic pollution, you can join our talks and expeditions. We also go to the Taal Lake Conservation Center to learn about their waste management programs.

Another thing is creating social media content about marine plastics, getting the topic to trend, and getting more people aware and involved. This new media approach to environmentalism: it works.

If there's one change you'd like to see every person in the Philippines make to reduce plastic pollution, what would it be?

If everyone could just start being aware of how much plastic they use, and realize that these things last longer than us. I’m not saying “stop”, but just be aware of the magnitude of marine plastics and open your minds to alternative solutions. Imagine what change this can do for your life